Dr Dena Arya

After six years of perseverance and determination, nourished by the love and support of my communities, I have completed my PhD. I must confess I have daydreamed about writing that post – the one where I tag my examiners, my supervisors, my mentors and bask for just a moment in the glory of ‘likes’, ‘shares’, and praises. A virtual homecoming where I can finally be recognised for my proverbial blood sweat and tears – having shared my ideas with the world ready to stand proud amongst my peers who made it over the finish line – to the land of early career researchers.

But I am yet to write that ‘glory tweet’. The next few paragraphs are not going to tell my personal story of academic success – rather I hope that this blog might be read by others who have lessons to share with me so that I can learn how to ‘do something’ about the predicament I find myself in.

Since September 2022, with the murder of Jina Amini which sparked the Zan Zendegi Azadi (Women Life Freedom) movement in Iran – the online space shifted for me. In the winter of ’22, as a member of the Iranian diaspora, and at the time teaching a module on the politics of youth resistance, suddenly online protest space was no longer something abstract, theoretical or removed. In real time I began to watch the bravery of young people back home risking their lives and standing up for each other – many lost their lives dreaming of a better tomorrow. For months my research, my thesis, my PhD seemed futile, I felt purposeless and all I could do was scroll as day turned to night and watch young people, often women, risk everything for a slither of possibility that their singing, dancing, hair, art, bodies could carry others beyond the brutality they faced.

After some months, I could no longer watch. I did what I could where I could, but nothing felt good enough. My contributions felt empty and the pain of watching too severe - so I stopped watching and went back to my theories, concepts and eventually the movement fell into a period of lull. A year went by and I submitted my thesis – and then came October 7th and the now eight months of catastrophe that people surviving in struggle in Palestine are living through.

This time, I could not watch. This horror is beyond my body’s capabilities to simply bear witness to. So, I do what I can where I can and I carry on living my life. A freedom that many surviving in struggle through the multiple monstruous genocides across the planet can only dream.

My life goes on and I pass my viva. I submit my corrections – I have spent six years reading, thinking, writing and exploring with young people the role of intersectional inequalities in their climate action. I publish papers, I attend talks, I experience, in my little world successes – I am the first person in my family to get a doctorate. My father who dedicated his life to nourishing my critical mind is proud of me. This is a reason to celebrate.

But how do we celebrate success in the face of horror as early career researchers?

And so what of our role is as academics, researchers, scholars, intellectuals (whatever term floats your boat) In the commodified academy where you can be as justice orientated and radically left as you like as long as you bring in the REF scores? How do we ensure that we don’t become the ‘left wing intelligencia’ that simply critiques horror from the side lines? How do we ‘do the doing’ of scholar activism in an academy that was never meant to be a place where political community, social movements, resistance or change happened? How do we subvert power in a thought factory that benefits from our labour?

Then I remember that, in spite of the very nature of the academy, when people come together and break out of their atomisation there is possibility. I suppose Foucault might have called that ‘power to/power with’.

I think about what I have learnt from great thinkers and political creators like hooks, Freire, Fanon, Davis and Truth. I think about the encampments in support of Palestine where students and academics across the world area standing together and risking their bodies, their livelihoods and their careers to stand up for those who are not able to stand up for themselves in the face of megaton bombs, warheads and fighter jets. And I ask myself – what is my role? How can I contribute from within the academy?

We all know that early career researchers occupy second class citizen status in academia - then there are those who are racially minoritised, working class, differently abled, or gender oppressed. We take short term precarious contracts anywhere we can, jump for joy at opportunities which promise to elevate our status but which in reality are free labour – all the while we sit alone at our desks wondering how to jump through the next hoop.

In no way of course am I insinuating that the experiences of ECRs, many of whom live in the relative safety of Global Minority locales, can be compared to the immeasurable pain and suffering that exists globally as a result of the mechanisms of a global hegemony that prides itself of racialised patriarchal capitalism that exploits people and planet for profit.

But, whilst I count up my successes and wonder how to share them, I also reflect on how we within academies across the world are supposed to make sense of our purpose. I left grassroots organising and community engagement to try and be a more useful member of the collective struggle – hoping that I could find it in academia.

I have indeed found communities of care, people who are willing to stand up and speak out: dedicators, strugglers, fighters and dreamers. In and amongst the conveyer belt of commodification of intellectualism there is a beautiful thread that ties so many of us together that I like to see as a shared experience of injustice and a striving for transformation – from the minute to the mountainous.

Thinking, understanding, participating in collective and self-education – developing our critical consciousness is dangerous to the system. If it wasn’t so dangerous I suppose Gramsci would have been allowed access to a pen in the first years of his solitary confinement in prison.

So perhaps with that in mind, and in honouring the innumerable students across the world from Palestine, the Congo, Sudan, Ukraine who no longer have universities within which to complete their PhD’s, I owe it to them to celebrate my success – as all of our wins belong to each other and are for each other’s tomorrow.

Author Biography:

Dr Dena Arya, Nottingham Trent University and the PSA's Young People’s Politics Specialist Group Convenor, is an expert in conducting focus groups on climate change issues and who has worked with Professor Henn on recent projects for the Nottingham City Council.