Challenging the discourse of suicide prevention: A bibliography

When I started my PhD, I asked a few groups and people around me if they knew of resources that challenge mainstream discourses around suicide. I think at that time not many people understood what my PhD was about or what it was trying to do (I’m not sure I did myself!). Someone introduced me to the Hearing Voices Network but nothing directly on suicide. I am now at the beginning of my second year and have been  focusing on problematising the discourse of suicide prevention. I recently asked a group of people doing Mad Studies if they knew of any resource/project/author that did so. As I had predicted, not many people responded and I was familiar with most of the material that was shared which demonstrates that there is very little work that aims to challenge traditional understandings of suicide and suicide prevention. More work and reflection is needed. This is why I’ve decided to start a bibliography to compile such resources which hopefully will grow with time and as I get deeper into my research. Maybe it could be a starting point for other people to think about challenging what we very often take for granted about suicide and suicide prevention. Please do get in touch if you know of anything that would be relevant: anais.pedica@york.ac.uk . I am not necessarily interested only in academic resources and welcome also art based projects, documentaries, podcasts, personal reflections, blog posts that directly or indirectly problematise the ideology, discourse and practices behind suicide prevention.

Texts

Alvarez, A. (1971). The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: Random House.

Baker, D. & Fortune, S. (2008). Understanding Self-Harm and Suicide Websites: A qualitative interview study of young adult website users. Crisis, 29(3), 118-122.

Colucci, E., Lester, D., Hjelmeland, H. (2012). Suicide and Culture: Understanding the Context. Cambridge: Hogrefe Publishing.

Feldmann, K. (2014). Suicidology prevents the cultivation of suicide.

Grant, A., Haire, J., Biley, F., Stone, B. (2013). Our Encounters with Suicide. PCCS Books.

Jaworski, K. (2016). Divorcing Suicidology, Ethically. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 5(2), 18-25.

Kral, M. J. (2015). Critical Suicidology as an Alternative to Mainstream Revolving-Door SuicidologySocial Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 4(6), 10-11.

Marsh, I. (2015). Critical Suicidology: Toward an Inclusive, Inventive and Collaborative (Post) Suicidology. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 4(6), 5-9.

May, R. (2016). How do we live with suicidal ideas?Ladybeard: The Mind Issue.

Puar, J. K. (2010). In the wake of “It Gets Better”. In M. Himley & A. Fitzsimmons (eds.), Critical Encounters with Texts: Finding a Place to Stand. Pearson Custom Publishing, pp. 429-431.

Puar, J. K. (2011). Coda: The Cost of Getting Better. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 18(1), 149-158.

Range, L. M. & Leach, M. M. (1998). Gender, Culture, and Suicidal Behavior: A Feminist Critique of Theories and Research. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 28(1), 24-36.

Szasz, T. (1971). The Ethics of Suicide. The Antioch Review, 31(1), 7-17.

Szasz, T. (1986). The Case Against Suicide Prevention. American Psychologist, 41(7), 806-812.

Szasz, T. (1999). Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide. Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Szasz, T. (2011). Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine. New York: Syracuse University Press.

Webb, D. (2010). Thinking about Suicide: Contemplating and Comprehending the Urge to Die. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.

Westerlund, M. (2012). The production of pro-suicide content on the Internet: a counter-discourse activity. New Media & Society, 14(5), 764-780.

White, J., Marsh, I., Kral, M.J., Morris, J. (2015). Critical Suicidology: Transforming Suicide Research and Prevention for the 21st Century. Vancouver and Toronto: UBC Press.

Podcast

Madness radio (2007). Youth Suicide with Leah Harris.

Madness radio (2011). Talking about Suicidal Feelings: David Webb.

Madness radio (2013). Understanding Borderline Trauma: Rita Marshall.

De retour

I’m back in the office after a 8 months leave. If I’m not mistaken, I’m finishing month 16 of my PhD so I’m still kind of at the beginning of my second year. I’ve also started my new job as a lecturer at York St John University. My wishes for this “second try” would be to make my PhD into a more specific project whilst keeping an open mind about including as many alternative voices in suicide research and experience as possible. I’m going back to basics today with Thomas Szasz’ (2011) Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine. Another resolution was to change my url to something a little more “professional” as I do less research on mermaids and more on suicide. I just found out I was stuck with phdmermaid so that’s that. Maybe it’s a sign that I really should send an abstract to the upcoming conference on Mermaids, Maritime Folklore and Modernity organised by Island Dynamics in Denmark next October. I’ve had this idea of a paper that would unite two of my research interests, mermaids & suicide, at the back of my mind for a while now. I’m also very aware of the fact that I should avoid going  to conferences and focus on the PhD and other work commitments for a while…

On another note, I had the chance of going to Lisbon over the summer and got to see Edgar Martin’s exhibition at the Maat: Siloquies and Siloquies on Death, Life and Other Interludes. Turned out a lot of it was on suicide. It made me think that I can never escape suicide. Either suicide is more prevalent in everyday life than I thought, or suicide always gravitates around me in some way or another. I’ll probably post some pictures of the exhibition at some point.

Lastly, Mental Health and Reflexivity, the conference I attended in Edinburgh a few months ago, has now got a blog and they re-posted my talk “Can the suicidal (academic) speak?“. Do have a look if you’re interested in the impact/use of personal experiences in mental health research (specifically in medical sociology). It was a really  good event with thought-provoking papers throughout!

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Why can’t Disney’s Maui be fat?

TW: Fatphobia (in the links)
I thought I’d write down my thoughts regarding Maui, the Hawaiian demigod that is represented in Disney’s Moana (due to be released in December 2016) and the body-shaming criticism that’s been going on online. This is in no way a thorough academic piece.
First of all, I’m not Polynesian and I only speak from the perspective of someone who comes from the South Pacific Islands (Kanaky New Caledonia in Melanesia) and who is culturally an odd mix of Western and Oceanic. I am however academically interested in the ways in which the west represents Pacific Islanders and people who live in the Pacific islands more broadly (from métisse/mixed people to generations of migrants from the Asian continent and other European and American colonies). I would argue that Disney’s Moana is very much a product of a western gaze: the two directors are white American men, the production is American (Disney) and the screenplay is mostly white American. Whilst some Pacific Islanders may rejoice at the thought of another Disney film focused on Hawaiian culture (the first one was Lilo & Stitch in 2002 produced by two white North-American men as well), it is definitely not in Polynesians’ or Native Hawaiians’ terms… In this sense, Hawai’i (and Polynesia more generally) in both Moana and Lilo & Stitch are productions of the North-American imaginary insofar as it produces Hawai’i/Polynesia, Hawaiian/Polynesian cultures and people as exotic Others. Those are essentially representations of Polynesian people, cultures and places by and for the west.

 

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Maui in Disney’s Moana (2016)

Now, it really pains me to see Polynesian people taking offense at the fact that FOR ONCE a masculine Polynesian character is not the archetype of the tall, muscular warrior or athlete (see bibliography at the end for free resources on the topic). Hollywood will have us believe that all Polynesian men are tall, muscular men like Dwayne Johnson or Jason Momoa (try and type ‘Polynesian actors’ in Google, or better yet, ‘Polynesian men’!). The hypervisibility of athletic Polynesian men in rugby emphasises this idea but that certainly doesn’t represent Polynesian masculinities as a whole. Super athletic, tall, toned men’s bodies are what the west values and finds the most desirable – according to European beauty standards – in Polynesian men and that is why they are the most (if not the only ones) visible in western media. Anything that doesn’t fit the Polynesian warrior/athlete archetype is cast aside, when Polynesian men’s bodies are really diverse. Fat Polynesian people DO exist and they deserve to be represented just as much as those who aren’t fat. It is fat Polynesian men’s bodies that we are shaming though the shaming of Maui’s body. In my opinion, those of us who come from and live in the Pacific islands should not play a role in policing diverse representations of Pacific islanders and consequently, marginalising and refusing the existence of some Pacific islanders who may not fit traditional western representations. The fact that the  movie is set in a fantasy Polynesian island  and within the realm of the mythical allow to play around and be flexible with the characters and the narrative. Whether or not Polynesian people were fat when Europeans colonised the islands is not a discussion that we should be having as the film does not and cannot seek  to be historically accurate. This reminds me of conversations about the necessity of having more characters of colour in fantasy and sci-fi (especially when written and produced by white people). What does the fact that  we are bothered about the portrayal of a demigod (a fictional and mythical character) as fat say about our cultures and ourselves? If it is unacceptable for mythical Polynesian characters to be fat, then what are the implications for real fat Polynesian people?

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“Hawaii’s Men 2013” calendar: Hawaiian men’s bodies, much like the bodies of wahines, are capitalised on.

This is particularly puzzling to me as in my part of the South Pacific, Wallisian and Futunian cultures are not necessarily cultures that are fat-negative (even though they may not be fat-positive and speaking in dichotomies in relation to fatness is symptomatic of western modes of thinking). Maybe we should shift the conversation from a pan-Polynesian perspective to a Hawaiian one, but I don’t know that that would change anything as fat Hawaiian men exist too!

Nevertheless, there are other reasons to be mad at Disney. For example, the cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of Hawaiian cosmology, as Prof. Marie Alohalani Brown suggests. Other critiques such as Ken Carlter, a Tahitian singer and producer, have denounced the fact that in the French version of the trailer, the characters do not have a Polynesian accent which suggests a white/western washing of  Polynesian mythology and of the movie more generally for French Polynesian/Maohi audiences.

For good measure, here’s a video of Tofiga Fepulea’i who is a Samoan comedian (part of the duo Laughing Samoans) born and raised in Aotearoa New Zealand and who also happens to be a REAL fat Polynesian man (ironically in this video he alludes to his experience of being fat in his family!).

 

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Tofiga Fepulea’i, New Zealand born Samoan comedian

 

Additional resources

Brislin, T. (2003). Exotics, Erotics and Coconuts: Stereotypes of Pacific Islanders. In P. Martin Lester and S. Dente Ross (2nd Ed.), Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media. Westport & London: Praeger, pp. 103-112.

Cheng, E. (2007). Family, Race and Citizenship in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. In N. Scott (Ed.), Monsters and the Monstruous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, pp. 123-132.

Chen, C. H. (2014). Prioritizing hyper-masculinity in the Pacific region. Culture, Society & Masculinities, 6(1), 69-90.

Hokowhitu, S. B.,  Sullivan, J. and Tumoana Williams, L. R. (2008). Rugby culture, ethnicity and concussion. MAI Review.

Tengan, T. K. (2002). (En)gendering Colonialism: Masculinities in Hawai’i and Aotearoa. Cultural Values, 6(3), 239-256.

 

 

Can the suicidal (academic) speak? Personal reflections on depression, suicide and research.

Here is the talk I did at the Mental Health & Reflexivity conference at the University of Edinburgh at the beginning of the week:

I did a similar talk for the first time at the Postgraduate Academia & Affect conference organised last year at the University of Sheffield. It was promoted as a space for postgraduates only, where we could openly share our experiences about research, academia, and emotional labour. Even though it wasn’t my first time presenting at a conference, it was my first time presenting on suicide. Prior to that, I had seen call for papers going around for conferences on suicide or death but I made an informed decision of not going to these spaces be it for presenting or as an audience member. I would think of the implications of being in a space where I am perceived as Other, the one who needs treatment, the ill one, my opinion being understood only through the filter of being suicidal, and I decided it was not for me.

I would like to start this talk by highlighting that my understanding of my self within the framework of mental health amongst others is relatively new. I went through the majority of my life thinking I was “normal”, mentally “healthy”, “sane” even though as a child and then teenager, my mother insisted I see pedopsychologists, pedopsychiatrists (the latter being the one who prescribed me my first sleeping pills as a child – the same ones I would attempt to end my life with at the age of 16). She also took me to various alternative therapies like hypnosis, acupuncture, and dowsing therapy. I was sceptical of all of them, none of them  “worked” (one of the reasons that it may have not “worked” is that I did not want to talk. I guess I could say that I am compensating by doing a PhD on suicide where I write about my experiences with abuse and suicide, but I’m doing so in my own terms). Despite all this, I’d only ever understood my intense sadness, my anger, my mood swings and my wish to die as being part of my personality rather than as illnesses that needed to be treated. In this sense, I join the ranks of those who have challenged the legitimacy of mental illness or of suicide as illness. I understand mental health as a lens through which it is possible to explore mental distress and suicidality but not the only one and not one without flaws.

In this paper, I want to highlight the impact that suicidal beingness has on doing research on suicide for me, particularity in relation to writing, reading, ethics, and interacting as research practices. It goes without saying that my experiences of being suicidal and studying suicide are only my own and they may not reflect other people’s experiences, even though some aspects may resonate with some.

Writing

Much like David Webb (2006) – who I am told completed the world’s first PhD on suicide by a suicide attempt survivor –I use several voices in my research: the narrative voice, which allows me to talk about my own experiences of suicide, to engage with my “suicidal beingness” at the first-person; the commentary voice, which is the reflective voice that allows me to discuss my experiences informed by the literature I have read. To that, I add the voice of other suicidal people (David Webb calls them “suicidal soulmates”) by using data from suicide websites that are not associated with mental health service providers (websites typically perceived as “encouraging” suicide because they allow users to talk about methods and they do not offer any type of institutional counselling apart from the support of other users). As Webb suggests, the narrative voice is necessary as:

It is impossible for me to speak solely as the dispassionate, detached, supposedly ‘objective’ student of suicide. The lived experience of suicidality is chaotic and confused, full of ambiguity and doubt. Anger, fear, and other passions are also tangled with the paralysing hopelessness and helplessness. All of this and more must be spoken of. The dispasionnate, scholarly voice has its place, but by itself it cannot adequately capture and articulate these essential elements of the suicidal experience as it is lived. For this, I need my first-person, narrative voice. This cannot be constrained by the rigours of academic discourse. With this voice I am free to be angry, confused, contradictory, passionate, maybe even poetic at times.” (2006: 6)

By sharing myself in this way, I assert the legitimacy of the suicidal voice in suicide studies. Following feminist work on the importance of survivors’ voices in understanding sexual violence, the suicidal academic exposes suicidal people as “theorists of their own experience” (Alcoff and Gray 1993 : 283). It is worth nothing that this work makes me vulnerable as I am also “the one who is being consumed when people read [my] work” (Jameela 2016). This is particularly relevant in this context as the study of suicide is a field with a long history of moral judgement (Kellehear 2007) which justifies other academics affected by suicidality or mental distress’ unwillingness to disclose their state of being by fear of repercussion on their professional and personal life.

I don’t seek to conceal the chaotic, confused and ambiguous character of suicidality in my writing. On the contrary, I wish to translate this messiness and ambiguity and go beyond traditional writings of suicide, which expect order, logic, rationality, measurability from researchers. In recently published Critical Suicidology, White et al. argue that the evidence-based practice movement is currently the most influencial amongst suicidologists. In fact:

At the heart of evidenced-based practice is the idea that program and policy decisions should be informed by a rational (i.e scientific) understanding of ‘what works’. this has the effect of rendering suspect all other ways of knowing (practical wisdom, traditional indigenous knowledge, learning through experience, collaborative knowing, etc.).” (2016: 3)

As a consequence, I acknowledge and welcome the fact that my work does not fit historic and contemporary thinking about suicide found in suicidology and suicide studies. This allows me to/forces me into interdisciplinarity which adds another layer of complexity to my writing. Using the work of Kenyan writer, Keguro Macharia about postcolonial writings, in doing so I am invested in “the difficult work of challenging the founding principles, the methods, the archives that are hostile to my own existence. [I] risk incoherence and disorder [for only] disorder can unmake existing orders”.

As a suicidal person, a suicide survivor, friend of suicide survivors and former support staff for students in emotional distress (some of them suicidal), I do not particularly believe that prevention of suicide is a framework that works for everyone, even though I can appreciate the work done by mental health service providers and organisations which seek to and do save lives. As a researcher, I am still negotiating the extent to which it is possible for me to challenge the hegemony of prevention as a framework to understand suicide. There are arguments that are bound to be unpopular within the profession and academia. Questioning prevention of suicide or the principle that “all life is worth living” can be perceived as being too radical, or as belonging to the realm of theory when proffered by a non-suicidal scholar, let alone by a scholar who identifies as suicidal. In his PhD thesis come book, Webb writes “although I encourage spending time with and getting closer to your suicidal feelings, I do not encourage acting on those feelings. To do so can not only kill you, it can also maim you. It is also not necessary” (2006: 4). Whilst I do not believe that not actively discouraging an individual to end their life equates to encouraging or inciting them to act on their suicidal feelings, I cannot help but wonder if the suicidal academic voice (its existence and its visibility) is dependent on its agreement with widely accepted (and unchallenged) principles of suicide and the sanctity of life. Therefore, I have to navigate the difficulties of not wanting my readers/audience to think I am inciting suicide, whilst coming to terms with the fact that every intellectual/political position I take is imbued of the fact that I myself am suicidal. The ironic character of my presence here today, telling you about suicide and prevention of suicide as problematic, because I was taken to a hospital and force fed activated charcoal to save my life, is not lost on me. There is almost a kind of hypocrisy about being alive, talking reflexively about suicide and challenging prevention.

Reading

To wade through even the shallow end of the mass of books and articles on the sociology of suicide is an odd experience. Clearly, the researchers are serious men, well trained and well informed, sometimes gifted and perceptive. Yet what they actually write seems somehow not to be wholly real. Or rather, by the time they have put their observations into discreetly scientific prose, a weird transformation has taken place: they seem no longer concerned with human beings, only with anonymous case histories and statistics, with odd facts and facets on which theories can be based. The amount of information is prodigious, yet it tells you almost nothing.” (Alvarez 1971)

And as I wade through the dark ocean of statistics on suicide, I cannot help but to ask myself:

Will I be part of this x% of victims of child abuse to die by suicide? Will I be part of this x% of victims of rape who die by suicide? Will I be part of this x% of LGBTQ young adults who die by suicide? Will I be part of this x% of suicide attempt survivors who die by suicide? I am already part of this statistical majority of women who “fail” to kill themselves, by overdosing. The case of the suicidal woman par excellence. As I tick so many boxes, the data becomes me and I become the data. In my research, I use statistics to break my personal narrative and saturate the reader with numbers. In doing so, I want to convey the alienation I feel when I read suicide research. The juxtaposition of textual personal experience and numeric representations of suicide renders the statistics meaningless, which allows for an affective realisation of the inadequacy of quantitative data in suicide research – or at least, not to the extent that it has been used thus far. The disruption of the personal narrative by numbers opposes two epistemological frameworks and sheds light on the violence of statistics and quantitative data, particularly in the way in which traditional quantitative suicide research participates actively in the ‘othering’ of suicidal individuals notably through setting clear boundaries between researchers and participants, and framing and pathologising suicidal behaviour as deviant, incomprehensible, and irrational.

Reading suicide research when suicidal is an emotional experience. For me, it involves recognising myself in the data, the suicide notes, the interviews, but not necessarily in the research and the jargon used to talk about me (and my “suicidal soulmates”). Depending on the mental space in which I find myself in as I read, it involves feeling closer to the at times dead individuals/data than to the research itself. This means that I have had to develop some research-emotion management strategies in order to have a degree of control on how much my research is affecting me personally. Indeed, the more I read, the more I reflexively learn about myself but also, the more I have to pay attention to how I feel. For example, in the first year of my research, I started reading a book that used suicide notes as data. After reading a few of the suicide notes, I found myself crying at my desk and not being able to work or function for the rest of day. This reaction to the data informed my decision of not working with suicide notes in my own research and avoiding reading research on suicide notes. Whilst this may sound trivial, it also suggests that being able to relate to our research topics in such a visceral way requires time. The time spent being hurt by our readings, our data, our academic encounters. The time spent trying to “get over it” and “move on” to the next thing. The time spent trying not to internalise everything we read about ourselves. The time spent being kind to ourselves when some research is violence. In saying this, I’m aware of the underlying idea of excess, academic excess (an idea that was very much inspired by  Surya Nayak’s readings of Audre Lorde at the recent Difference not Deviance event organised at York). Saying too much, disclosing too much, being too emotional, too angry, too sad, too irrational, being too much. An excess that is itself very much linked to the feminine. There is no space in the accelerated academy for this excess.

Ethics

My ethics was straightforward. Of course, I did not mention that I was suicidal in it although my supervisors were aware from the beginning. In the section “Risks to researchers (e.g. personal safety, physical harm, emotional distress, risk of accusation of harm/impropriety, conflict of interest…)” I wrote the following:

The content of the websites can cause emotional distress. I am aware of support services available on campus such as Open Door, Student Support, and Nightline. I am also aware of off campus services such as The Samaritans. I know I can speak to my supervisors if my research is affecting my health. I also have a strong support system.” (Ethics form, Department of Sociology 2015).

At one of my supervision meeting, one of my supervisors raised that they needed to talk about how they felt about the potentiality of me ending my life during my PhD. Coincidentally, the same week my flatmate confessed to me “I’m scared to come home and find you dead”. As I have found out in the years in which I have been open about having attempted suicide and feeling suicidal, exploring your suicidality with others means having to think about your posthumous self more than you usually would, with people you may not want to have these conversations with and at times at which you may not be prepared for these conversations to happen. Whilst these conversations (or the mention of these conversations) have made me greatly uncomfortable and upset, I believe it is important for supervisors to discuss the impact of the supervisee’s mental health on their own mental health and the role they may play in it. For example, one might suggest that by “allowing” a suicidal researcher to do research with distressing data, they are significantly impacting the supervisee’s mental health. Of course, this argument poses the problem of putting safeguards between suicidal people and research, which further victimises and infantilises us by disregarding our agency. Here, my involvement in the Dying Matters movement influences my opinion on this topic as I believe that it is our responsibility to talk about our suicidality and therefore, potential death, to the people we work with, in the context of “insider” research (providing that it is a safe environment to do so – no repercussions on career for example). Suicidal people should not be excluded from the Big Conversation. On the contrary, they should be encouraged to have it. For those who aren’t familiar with them, Big Conversation events are organised as part of the Dying Matters Awareness Week. They aim to break the taboos around death and dying to help people prepare. To my knowledge, the movement does not yet include suicide (if it’s not assisted) as part of the conversation.

Networking/interacting

Interacting with other people (researchers in other fields, students, friends of friends…) can prove challenging. I do not always disclose that I study suicide and have tried to end my life. However, not disclosing my personal experience can result in people talking negatively about suicidal people and suicide as they assume that since I’m a researcher, I must not be suicidal. When this happens, I sometimes force myself to disclose to challenge them. In a way, it is also my contribution to de-stigmatising suicide. By contrast, some people show a lot of positive interest to my research. I once had a conversation with an undergraduate who disclosed that he had thought about ending his life to me. It was the first time he had been talking about it to someone and I could tell that the fact that I had told him that I did not think that suicidal people were selfish and that I was suicidal myself had made him comfortable. Other people, upon learning about my research and me being suicidal, let me know how important they think my work is. Some people ask personal questions about what I mean when I say that I am suicidal. How many times have I attempted suicide? How often do I want to kill myself? What do you do to not kill yourself? (A form of voyeurism when it doesn’t come from suicidal people) At times, I find myself in positions in which people seek comforting, validation, and even strategies of survival. I struggle to know what to say in these situations. In fact I have to juggle with being suicidal and wanting to share what works for me and being a researcher, catching myself saying things like ‘yes, what you are feeling is a very common theme in the literature on suicide’. At the same time, spending my days reading and writing about suicide academically, and experiencing suicidal thoughts in my personal life, I do not always have the emotional energy to listen and absorb more about suicide, or to be as empathetic as I would like to be. This has raised a few questions for me: What kind of researcher do I want to be? What are the expectations of people and more specifically suicidal people of suicidal researchers on suicide? What impact could my research potentially have on people who think about suicide? Those are questions that I am still wrestling with and that I hope the next few years will help me explore.

Reflections on students’ essays: The “collage essay”

As someone who gets to read many essays (and some exam papers) in quality of seminar tutor and writing tutor, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about recurrent writing practices that I see in taught undergraduate and postgraduate work that may weaken their arguments. I’ve called this ‘reflections on students’ essays’ and not ‘advice‘ because this represents my own experiences of reading, marking and providing feedback for taught students’ essays. This is to be taken with a pinch of salt because there is no one size fits all in terms of academic writing. I personally am more used to write and read  in the social sciences and humanities and this very much influences the way I understand, critique, mark and feedback. There is definitely a lot of room for other markers to disagree with me and my approaches to essay writing. Therefore, because of the subjective character of essay reading and marking, it’s important that students have an open dialogue with their academic and/or dissertation supervisors as well as their module convenors and seminar tutors about what their specific department/module value in essay writing and what they should be avoiding.

In this (hopefully) series of posts, I will write about common practices that I believe should be avoided in order for students to have stronger arguments and essays. When possible, I’ll be using my own questionable writing practices (!) from past undergraduate and postgraduate essays in Sociology and Women’s Studies (Humanities) to illustrate my points.

Before I start, I think it’s important that students are aware of the conditions in which their essays are marked. I think this will  resonate with a lot of markers (although probably not all) and is worth keeping in mind when you write your essays and when you receive your feedback. Particularly, I think that writing clearly, signposting, proof-reading, avoiding complex sentences that require the marker to read several times to understand can be very helpful to a marker who will be under tight deadlines to read, mark and provide feedback to a lot of essays.
The “collage essay”

This is typically an essay in which the student over-relies on references through the use of direct quotations and/or paraphrasing. It can look like a collection of quotes rather than a constructed argument (see example at the end of this post). Consequently, the student’s voice is almost to completely invisible as the only way they contribute to the argument is by linking other people’s work together, describing and summarising it as opposed to developing their own argument using references. Of course, this is in relation to essay questions that start with ‘explore’, ‘investigate’, ‘discuss’ rather than literature review-type of essay. There are a lot of university resources online on how to understand and answer essay questions. Here’s an example from Massey University.

On the one hand, this can be because the student has read very widely. They have taken a lot of notes and know a lot about the discussions that are going on in their field or on the topic they are writing about. They want their essay to be a good representation of the wide and in-depth reading that they’ve done. On the other hand, it could be that the student hasn’t done much research or isn’t inspired to have their own argument and thus, over-relies on and repeats what others have written.

I believe that either way this suggests a lack of confidence in the student’s capacity to have opinions, come up with their own arguments, and to write academically more generally. This then translates in relying on other people’s voices to make points. It can also be that the student does not know how to paraphrase (how to say it in a different way or in a way that fully represents the original text) or does not know when to reference (this is actually a question that I get from students a lot and it probably deserves its own post).

When I see students who come to me with ‘collage essays’, I remind them that they should be using external sources as tools to build their own argument rather than as arguments in their own right. References can be used as theoretical frameworks, as evidence to an argument, as a way to support an argument, but they are not arguments in themselves. The student needs to avoid being too tied to other academics’ arguments (even if they agree with them) and develop their own academic voice as well as show that they can write critically by being able to detach themselves and  engage with diverse perspectives.

Questions that you may want to ask yourself:

  • If my essay was to be published in an academic journal, what more would it bring to the table? What is my contribution to the discussions on this topic?
  • How is my argument “original” or different from what I have read?
  • When do I decide to directly quote as opposed to paraphrase?

Tips:

  • Highlight the parts of your essay that are paraphrasing, quoting or describing other people’s work. Does it look like it represents the majority of your essay? If so, what can you do to have more balanced essay?
  • Plan your essay using your own words. For each one of your argument, write down the references, concepts, theories that you will be using underneath each theme/point but remember that they are here to support your argument and that you will need to develop them.
  • Every time you are directly quoting or paraphrasing or describing other people’s work, ask yourself: “what are the implications of this quote/research for my overall argument? For this specific paragraph?”. In other words, ask yourself “so what?” Basically, this is to make sure that you have made the reason for which you are using this reference clear to the reader.

 

Excerpt from one of my second year essays in Sociology (undergraduate):

According to Hardt & Negri (2004) (as cited in Skott-Myhre, 2008, p.5), even the creativity advocated by the Fordist economy “is turned towards profit”. Because consumerism becomes a means of social distinction, the distinctiveness by which subcultures exhibit their rejection of the mainstream, by the same process, becomes consumerism. In the same fashion, Hall et all. have argued that “the counterculture is not a reaction against the tyranny of the system that rules us, a spontaneous rebellion drawing upon some suppositious natural urge to transgress, it is the ultimate populist element of the bourgeois-derived system itself” (2008, P.108). Furthermore, if Moore views youth as “an ‘in-between’ of the life cycle” (2010, p.23) which propels a rebellion characterized by the expression of “leisure, creativity and instant gratification”, post-subcultural theory disapproves the relationship between this hedonism and any form of political activism: “having fun is not subversive, and it doesn’t undermine any system. In fact, widespread hedonism makes it more difficult to organise social movements, and make it more difficult to persuade anyone to sacrifice in the name of social justice” (Hall et al., 2008, p.102). They complete their critic of the countercultural theory by discussing the way in which radical transformation of the social and economic system has turned the political into a culture of narcissism. However, the tendency for individualistic concerns has not completely withdrawn the capacity for social gatherings as more fluid and temporary forms of communities are being created.”

 

Dying & Grieving in the Age of Social Media

TW: Suicide

Today I contributed to the Before I Die Festival 2016 at York with a workshop on death and grief online. I wanted to focus on this topic particularly because of my own experience of having dead friends on Facebook (or ‘digital ghosts’). In the first year of my PhD, one of my friends died by suicide. She was in her early twenties. She was a friend from work and I didn’t feel particularly comfortable going to any event organised following her death because I felt guilty for having refused to go on a night out with her just a few days before her death. I also felt like we weren’t close enough for me to be in the same room as her family and close friends… Nevertheless, upon learning about her death from one of our friends and then in student media, I posted a status on Facebook. Depression and suicidal thoughts being familiar to me, her suicide made me feel close to her. For me, we became closer through her wish to die, her experiences of depression and her decision to die. I translated and quoted a passage from a book I had been reading at the time :

Your life was a hypothesis. Those who die old are a bloc of past. We think of them, and appears what they were. We think of you, and appears what you could have been. You were and will remain a myriad of possibilities.” – in ‘Suicide’ by Edouard Levé (Translated from French)

Her Facebook page was taken over by family and friends and used as a memorial page. Her loved ones would share photos, stories and memories they shared with her. They would tell her and the rest of her Facebook friends how much they loved and missed her. For similar reasons as the ones I had for not going to meetings with her other friends, I did not share anything. One day I was scrolling through my list of Friends (I have this habit of deleting Facebook Friends whom I do not interact with) and I saw her name, and her picture, amongst my other Friends, the ones who are still living. It made me uncomfortable. She had decided to end her life, she had made this decision for herself, and yet people were making her live online. This didn’t mean that I am against memorial pages or online grieving, rather that I realised in that moment, that in that particular case, I wasn’t comfortable. So I deleted her as a Friend. She did not die online but she was dead IRL (in real life) and I did not want to see her digital ghost amongst my Friends, nor did I want to have access to her pictures or her memories. Deleting her made me upset but it was my way of acknowledging her death, respecting her choice to die, and saying goodbye.

You are a book who speaks to me when I want it to. Your death has written your life.” – in ‘Suicide’ by Edouard Levé (Translated from French)

So today we talked about dying and grieving online. I shared my personal experience but also the experiences of some friends who had been kind enough to share theirs with me. I relied heavily on material created by DeadSocial, especially when talking about the Social Media Will (see handout and resources below).

An aspect that I particularly wanted to highlight was the harm that online grieving can do. This isn’t particularly related to the experience I just recalled. Indeed, it is more something that I have noticed arise in my friends’ experiences. Not only is it important to talk about our online death to people around us, but it is also important to talk about how we grieve. One of my friends told me about an instance in which she had posted a picture of a family member who had died (but who did not have Facebook)  with a loving caption, when a relative messaged her, outraged, asking her to delete the picture because it did not belong on social media. Another friend wrote about the partner of her dead friend keeping his relationship status active and celebrating their relationship anniversary with a Facebook status even after the death of his partner. She found it uncomfortable and possessive. Yet another friend talked to me about having the pictures she took and posted of a loved one on Facebook when they were living being shared by other people, and being notified every time this happened, reminding her of the painful loss.

Grieving online can be uncomfortable. In a piece about online grieving, Nancy Westaway writes about losing her husband to cancer and how this manifested online:

At first I was uncomfortable with the online grieving. When people clicked “like” on Jon’s obit after it was posted to Facebook, it felt remote and impersonal as if someone was taking something that belonged to the kids and me. But digital death notices and online goodbyes are part of modern love. When I saw the names of people I had never met posting their condolences on a friend’s page, I understood it. When I die, I want my friends to be comforted too.

While she ended up being more comfortable with the ways in which grief presents itself online, some people just are not. Seeing people ‘like’ (with a ‘thumbs up’ – read  Jenny Davis’ piece on the way in which the new Facebook emojis or reaction do not change this) a status about the death of a loved one on Facebook can feel inappropriate . A sudden increase of notifications because people you have never met before share your pictures and memories of a recently deceased loved one can feel and be intrusive. That is why I suggest that we ask ourselves: Is my online grief harming anyone? We can mourn online and still be mindful not only of the deceased wishes (or what we think they would have been comfortable with and uncomfortable with concerning grieving for them online) but also of the close family and friends who may not want to be involved in other people’s grief through online interaction (sharing, tagging, messaging, etc.). If grieving online is about showing that we care, it is also about comforting and supporting each other through the loss of a loved one and about kindness (online and offline).

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Download the handout: Handout BID

Useful resources

DeadSocial.org and Digital Legacy Association (more geared towards healthcare professionals)

More reading

Anthropology in Practice. (2010). Death 2.0: Digital Mourning. Anthropology in Practice.

Brannen, K. (2016). Her secret history: I discovered my mother’s digital life after her death. The Guardian.

Daniels, J. (n.d.). On mourning online… Dealing with death 2.0. Medium.

Harnett, E. (2016). Death and Emojis: How grief manifests on social media. Broadly.

Schrock, L. (n.d.). Grieving 2.0: How Facebook is changing mourning rituals. Think.

Selingson, H. (2014). An online generation redefines mourning.The New York Times.

Sinders, C. (2016). I spent the last 6 months planning my online death. Fusion. net.

Westaway, N. (2016). Modern Grief. The Walrus.

Image credits on the Powerpoint: Eleanor Doughty & Mügluck