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In Sisterhood: CWS annual Sisterhood-in-Action conference 2017

Posted on 9 February 2017

Article by Jamie Khoo and O'Dessa.

Now into its third year, the Centre for Women’s Studies’ annual internal Sisterhood in Action conference is fast becoming a key event in our calendars. Initially conceptualised as a supportive space for postgraduates in CWS to share their research, ‘Sisterhood’ has evolved to become an event for also discovering new ideas and forging new connections.

The Sisterhood conference is always a collaboration between staff and students, so year’s organising committee saw Dr. Ann Kaloski-Naylor and four PhD students on board – first year Lauren Cowling and second years, O’Dessa, Joy Ogbemudia and Jamie Khoo. As we’ve all had experience in (and were wildly inspired by) previous years’ conferences, we were keen to be a part of organising this one and to further develop the programme. 

The progression process changes this year for the 2016-17 PhD intake, so paper presentations were reserved only for ‘older’ PhD students. Though Sisterhood has been set up to provide support for anyone needing help with composing abstracts and giving a paper, the committee were very impressed by the submissions that came through this year – hardly any required amendments and all promised very vigorous, engaging discussion. Seeing the abstracts alone was enough for us to know this would be a cracking conference.

We also decided to change the format of our table talks this year. Previous years’ PhD students were organised into groups with others working in similar areas, but we felt that in many cases, students with overlapping research interests would already be talking to each other. Instead, we arranged for groups to encompass a range of research topics, disciplines and methodologies. We hoped this would introduce students to different thoughts and approaches, and connect them with colleagues across different stages of the PhD. 

In the spirit of interdisciplinary feminist research and methodology, the committee also wanted to make the conference a more holistic experience. We introduced an art display, encouraging students to share any art, craft or written work, and a craft corner, for people to be creative during the lunch break. And lastly, to provide a space where women’s voices would be heard, supported and celebrated, we incorporated an open-mic session at the end of the day, encouraging anyone to perform something dear to their hearts.

Preparation for the conference was joyful and seamless, and for weeks before the actual day, the committee were excited for what we anticipated to be the biggest and most eventful Sisterhood conference yet. 

A day of ‘sisterly’ support

The morning of the conference brought with it a strong air of excitement as we, the committee members, set up the Treehouse at the Berrick Saul Building. Fifty-three MA and PhD students, chairs and staff were welcomed with coffee, tea and delicious homemade Nigerian puffpuffs (a new CWS tradition started by one of our PhD students and organising committee members Joy Ogbemudia) before gearing up for a full day of stimulating conversations around feminism, activism, and research.

The day started off with two panels; the first, Once Upon a Now: Challenging Gender Myths, included two PhD students and a second year MA, whose papers set the tone for the new ‘stories’ and realities being created through their research. Papers in this panel challenged what has become accepted as cultural ‘myths’ surrounding conventional notions around gender, and offered new ways of thinking to shake up the status quo. These included the literary and critical analysis of an autobiography, an iconic social anthropological text by Mary Douglas, and prison inmates’ fairy-tales for their children. 

The second panel, titled Carving Spaces: Disrupting Feminist Conversations, was brought to us by three PhD researchers, including a visiting student from Hong Kong. They did a wonderful job of broadening and challenging existing discussions around the issues of body positivity, abortions in Northern China, and asexual identity and intimacies. They also included personal sharings from the speakers, proving how powerful and significant each of our own individual experiences can be within the research process. Both of these panels yielded deeply insightful questions that allowed us all to think further about the papers we had just seen presented.

Next, during lunch, everyone had a chance to catch up with fellow CWS students, including some who had specially travelled in for the day, to admire the beautiful artwork on display and to craft their own. 

The two panels after lunch were kicked off by three second-year PhD students in a panel on methodology. Embracing Complexities: Interviewer-Participant Relationships explored the challenges arising during interview processes and how to incorporate feminist methodologies during fieldwork. Covering issues of messiness in research, reflexivity, the complexities of ostensibly simple methods and the adaptation to using new digital technologies for traditional interviewing methods, this panel shed new light on how we might approach our data. It also resulted in many thought-provoking questions from the audience regarding best practices.

The last panel, After Analysis: Reflections Towards the End of a PhD, displayed third and fourth year PhD students reflections on their research, specifically around the issues of intimacy, relationships and the application of theory in the doctoral thesis. As these speakers were nearing the end of their research, their contemplations were particularly helpful and inspiring for those of us who are still at the earlier stages of our PhD. After the panel was asked a series of fairly tough questions, they were finally posed with possibly the most difficult question of the day: “But what exactly is this thing you call theory?”

After pastries and tea, we transitioned to the table talk portion of the conference where MA and PhD students were grouped together for further discussion with their peers. In MA table talks, chaired by both staff of the centre and CWS alumni, students shared questions and ideas around the dissertations they would be writing over summer; PhDs discussed in their groups the challenges and excitement they experienced in their research and being a student at CWS. Animated conversations across the room offered support and space for each person to share aspects of our research that were lighting up our hearts, puzzled over personal difficulties we faced in the actual ‘doing’ of research, and celebrated exciting new, ground-breaking research being conducted among our colleagues. This hour alone proved how dynamic, engaging and thoughtful the researchers in our department are, and what an honour it is to be working alongside such incredibly talented people.

Finally, we rounded off the day with the newly-planned open mic session. All conference guests enjoyed an hour winding down over wine and drinks, and the opportunity to perform, recite, sing, or express their thoughts regarding current world affairs, the events of the day or personal experience. The varied range of performances proved an exceptionally invigorating and empowering way to end our conference: from the introduction of a new feminist collective in York to the reading of slam poetry, from a play about love to an emotional memoir, all sharings perfectly reflected our day of sisterhood.

While current political and social events around the world has been cause for much grief, frustration and despair, this year’s SIA was a reminder of how important it is that we continue to uplift, inspire, support and hold space for each other, however small or big that space may be. The energy was palpable throughout the day, creating an even stronger sense of unity, excitement, and support within CWS than we’d dared to expect. There is hope yet for a better world – and what more powerful place to start than with the people right around us?

We look forward to next year’s SIA conference, and thank all of those who participated and made the day such a wonderful experience!

Some feedback from conference participants

“The open mic was brilliant. It was great to have that open space to share creativity, emotions, and passions. I also want to highlight the fact that the PhD table talks were grouped randomly. This was a fantastic opportunity to get to know fellow students we normally don’t get to talk to.”

“The table talks were a good space to get together and (for us) to discuss the PhD process.”

“Loads of really interesting question came up during the panels, and I thought the discussion worked well. It felt like a really supportive environment.”

“I benefited from the methodology bits that various PhD students spoke about in their presentations on the panels, particularly because I find research methodologies quite challenging and hard to work with.”

“It was a good balance in terms of the content between presentations, Q&A sessions and the table talks; although I would have probably found it more beneficial to have a longer time slot for table talks to further brainstorm our research topics as MA students.”