Career File: Wendy Stainton-Rogers

This is the third in our new series ProfFile: informal interviews with leading or under recognized critical health psychologists. This month’s ProfFile is with Professor Wendy Stainton-Rogers, who is based in Yorkshire, UK.  A key organizer of ISCHP, Wendy has blazed a trail for many of us working in critical health, social and feminist psychology. 

Wendy at the Psychology of Women Section Conference, UK, July 2016. Image credit: Dee Lister. For more pics that Dee took at the POWS conference see her Flickr page

What is your current position?

I’m now retired but still a ‘Professor Emerita’ at the Open University in the UK. However, it’s rather more complicated than that.

Less than a month after my retirement in September 2011 I had to have a biopsy to see if I had developed cancer. This small procedure went catastrophically wrong and I was very ill for several years with the aftermath. As I write, five years later, yes I do have cancer, but not the aggressive one first diagnosed. It affects me but I am much recovered from what happened (more surgical catastrophes and two periods of acute starvation). Over this time I had most of my gut removed (hence the malnutrition). So these days I am IV fed by tube, pumped in for 11 hours overnight. I can’t eat at all, but can cook, so all is not lost.

It was what you might call a severe case of participant-observer experience! I have been encouraged to write about it, and maybe I will, given time. In sociological terms,  these days I’m a bit of a cyborg with a tube sticking out of me and have a Klingon carapace stuck on my abdomen, so I do see myself as very alien and disfigured.  Becoming disabled has been a truly salutary experience. I am out of a wheelchair now but have an intimate knowledge of the bowels of Leeds Beckett university’s (in Leeds, UK) rather laberynthine arrangements for access.

The good news is that I am getting better and now active academically once again. This year I’ve been to some seminars and the British Psychological Society’s Psychology of Women Section (POWS) conference, and am currently working hard on editing the second edition of the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology, together with Carla Willig. I’m keenly looking forward to attending the ISCHP conference in 2017, and even thinking of making some kind of contribution.

Could you say a bit about your career trajectory so far?

Well, career wise, at 70, I’m rather past it! Which is actually a great thing to be. I don’t have to earn a living any longer so what I do, I do for fun and satisfaction. Being involved in ISCHP is one of the most rewarding parts of that.

Historically my career was chaotic and problematic. In 1971 when my daughter was born I had no choice but to give up my job as a schoolteacher. There was no legal protection of employment at that time, and, anyway Bowlby’s ideas of maternal deprivation were the accepted view. I even had a row with the man himself (after his seminar) because he disapproved of me leaving my six-month-old daughter to come to it! You had to be very brave in those days to go back to work once you had children. But I did a couple of years later I was appointed as a part time tutor for the Open University’s first Psychology course. Eventually, after several years, this led to me eventually joining the OU’s Psychology Department as a lecturer on a temporary contract. In all I was employed by the OU on temporary contracts for 16 years, and was very active in the AUT (the academic Union) striving to change the employment law and practice that allowed this to happen.

I’ve spelled all this personal stuff out to make the point that in working life, not everything was better in the past! There was in academia and beyond a real sense that academic freedom mattered and there was not the constant audit pressure to ‘perform’. But there were very few women academics at that time and vastly more women than men employed part-time. Almost all professors were male. These conditions had a serious impact upon the career prospects of women entering the profession, as it did for all the minorities excluded from the academy.

How did you get to be where you are today?

I also ended up taking 14 years to get my PhD, having started in mainstream cognitive psychology in Reading in the 70s and ending with a critical health psychology PhD I did part-time for seven years – though I was allowed three months study leave to complete it. I wrote my thesis into a book, Explaining Health and Illness, published in 1991. It was one of the first books to apply critical, social constructionist and postmodern ideas to health psychology, and it changed my life! Out of it came my invitation to give a keynote at what was the first ISCHP conference, and the rest, they say, is history.

I did have an extremely demanding academic ‘day job’ while all this was happening. Being a critical psychologist was very much an evenings and weekend ‘indulgence’. I was rubbish at getting research grants, but brilliant at getting money out of the, then, (British) Conservative Government to fund a variety of educational projects. These included degree courses and training qualifications in areas like child safeguarding, child welfare law, working with young people and youth justice. It wasn’t until my last couple of years working at the OU that I was able to get off the treadwheel and devote myself to critical health psychology in any significant way. But I (mostly) enjoyed the day job for all those years because it was incredibly fulfilling. It gave me a real sense of actively ‘changing things for the better’ and achieving meaningful outcomes, in practical terms (mainly for children’s welfare) and, at the same time, feeding radical ideas into the training of a wide range of professionals and encouraging them to be more critical in their practice.

When did you decide to be an academic? What was it that prompted this decision?

I was lucky I had very ambitious parents. We were three girls and, in the days when most mothers simply hoped their daughters would grow up to get married and give them grandchildren, my mother’s aspirations were firmly on us getting to university. She wanted us to be economically independent and able to make choices, in a way that hadn’t been possible for her. She was the 12th of 13 children (not all of whom lived to adulthood) and I was the first among this extended family to go to university, which made her very happy. In fact, all three of us daughters became academics.

Once I got to university, like a lot of people I assumed I was there by a fluke, and it wasn’t until my first exams two terms in that I realized I perhaps deserved to be there and might even get a degree. The idea of being an academic never entered my head even then, but by my final year some of the staff were encouraging me to do a PhD. Sadly, despite my mother’s ambition, at twenty I was thoroughly convinced that status came from having a boyfriend. By the time I passed my finals, I was totally preoccupied with getting married and that meant getting a job wherever my new husband’s work took him, so that I could become a good wife. So I ignored all thoughts of academia and took the usual (for young graduate women of my time) route into teaching, an easy to get job with no teaching qualification in those days.

It took having a child, in 1971, and being a stay-at-home mum that tipped the balance for me. I became increasingly frustrated with societal expectations, coming from both my husband’s work colleagues, particularly, and so many of the women around me who were busy being earth mothers. I also began to read Feminist books and magazines like Spare Rib and Nova, and learned about ideas like ‘false consciousness’. Suddenly my mother became very wise and sensible. Feeling very brave, I decided I needed to get some intellectual stimulation and started going to psychology seminars at Reading university, and, over time, got talked into doing a PhD. Over seven years I tried, and failed to get a PhD based on a fascinating research project looking at the encoding going on during the first 300 milliseconds of memory. I failed at the viva. But that didn’t stop me becoming an academic.

What have been the challenges so far in your career in academia?

Mostly those I’ve spoken about already, and predominantly the gender inequality and the sexism predominant in my early career. This including repeatedly experiencing what I now know to call ‘sexual harassment’ which was rampant and effectively impossible to challenge.

There was also the dominance of positivism in psychology. I chose the initial PhD in the cognitive field because that was where the boys were and I was often the only woman in the room, seminars and conferences. But, surprisingly, it was not the critical-phobic environment you might expect. There was a lot of innovative theorizing about the importance of meaning in cognitive processes. I ended up being more interested in exploring the alternative ways in which people encoded, memorized and understood words, patterns and so on. Not at all a popular approach and may well explain the failed viva!

What I benefitted from, however, was a much more open, flexible and principled academic world, which genuinely respected the idea that intellectual life was valuable in itself, and a public ‘good’. Education was seen as a great deal more than preparation for work, and not measurable in terms of economics and outputs. I also had no fees, but a grant to study (including money for travel home and books) and got my degree without any debt whatsoever.

I was also much helped by my many colleagues, sisters and friends who were incredibly supportive. In retrospect, creating and nurturing critical psychology was very much a collaborative venture; even though there were separate ‘camps’ there was a real sense of communitarianism and excitement in taking on the mainstream. Beryl Curt (the disembodied author of Textuality and Tectonics) was a brilliant invention, bringing together my own particular ‘camp’ made up of Rex Stainton Rogers, me and our graduate students and their friends, with a shifting and inclusive membership. We were not always seen as wise in the games we played and trouble we made, but we did have enormous fun and gained real support from each other.

What advice would/do you give to other critical psychology academics?

It’s much easier these days with the internet, websites and social media to build supportive friendships even if the place where you study or work feels very hostile to critical approaches, or even qualitative methods. One of the key purposes we elected for ISCHP is for it to offer real and practical forms of support for students and early-career academics and researchers in this field. Our conferences are designed to be welcoming and friendly events, celebrating all that is wonderful about doing critical health psychology. Use all its media to find others doing stuff that is interesting to you, and its resources to help you get your head round the subject. In your department feels like an inhospitable place to be, look around other places in your institution (try sociology, anthropology, geography and cultural studies for a start) where your ideas and interests may find a friendlier audience. Or look to what is going on in your community, where critical psychology is being practiced.

What are you currently working on?

Just now I’m systematically going through a backlog of draft chapters for the 2nd Edition of The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology as co-editor with Carla Willig, as we try to get it into the publishers not too long after our most recent deadline.

I’m also working hard on regaining my IT skills which I lost in all the catastrophes and a house move from Milton Keynes to just outside Halifax. Once I’ve got that sorted, I’ve got an enormous backlog of reading to do to catch up with all the wonderful work that’s been done since 2011.

Finally, I’ve got involved in the ‘slow scholarship’ movement to try to find practical ways in which to challenge the neoliberalism so redolent in academic life. Playing games and making trouble again!

And lastly, making reference to critical health psychology research and theory contrast and compare the following: dogs and cats.

My main contact with pets of both these kinds is Facebook. I do my best to be tolerant and do realize that many of my friends find both kinds cute and amusing, and some are truly devoted to their own particular animals. But I just swipe on, sorry.

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