The Student View

The Master of Letters Gender Studies 2020 from the University of St Andrews was created and organised by Dr Alison Kerr not only to be an extension of the St Andrews Institute for Gender Studies (StAIGs) but as a means for this discipline to find a home and strong, interdisciplinary community with the St Andrews academic community. The 2020 cohort is a close-knit group that all came to the Univerisity of St Andrews as it was a centre of excellence with a stellar reputation that could be relied upon, all excited to explore this discipline. 

The removal of Dr Kerr from this course has created a turbulent and stressful return to courses for the first MLitt Gender Studies cohort. Following the reception of the news, members of the cohort decided to write about how this situation has affected them.

I have so many questions for the university but my main questions are how did anyone think it was okay to put Dr. Alison Duncan Kerr in this position?  Why did no one question the decision? And three what am I paying for? 

To put it simply we have paid over £9,450 but this wasn’t used to pay the course creator, the very person whos been teaching us Gender studies nor was it used to support our mental health during the stress and anxiety caused by the transition. So I ask again what was it used for? 

I chose St Andrews for many reasons, partly due to the name and the doors that it opens but also due to Alison’s expertise. As well as her connections to the St Andrews Insustiue for Gender Studies (StAIGS). Her removal has led to more than just the loss of a talented program leader and researcher, it has created a distrust of the university itself. After all, why should we trust a university that does not deliver on its promises of what the program would cover, accesses to StAIGS or its diversity goals? Why should we be happy that we have had to create our second semester from scratch? And why should we be happy that we discovered that Alison wouldn’t be teaching us the day of our second semesters classes?

In truth, studying during a worldwide pandemic is hard enough. We did not need the extra stress and anxiety that has come with this situation, all we wanted was to be taught by somebody that we trusted to deliver an incredible course and cared about both are education and our mental health. The university has failed Alison but it has also failed us, her students and we want to know, why?

I was excited to be attending such a reputable university and to be taught by an esteemed academic who had set up an institute in gender studies. The first semester was engaging and Dr Kerr offered tailored support with her knowledge in gender studies. However having experienced the lack of care towards the gender studies course through Dr Kerr’s treatment, therein causing our cohort instability, I feel greatly disappointed with my experience at St Andrews. This experience highlights there is still a long way to go in terms of equality and is worrying for a female looking to pursue a career in academia like Dr Kerr.

The beginning of this second semester has been turbulent to say the least. With the uncertainties related to the pandemic and the various and changing positions that the university has taken to face these challenges I was already feeling unstable, disconnected from the academic environment that I had chosen, and discouraged from being able to experience it the way I was expecting.

Having to deal with the removal of our module coordinator, which was essentially the only person that was able to provide us with the adequate support and information we have been asking and we deserved during the first semester, is distressing. Our mental health and well-being that are already tested by these circumstances have not only been put at risk but also completely overlooked by St Andrews University, which takes pride in the special attention given to its students. The program of our course completely changed compared to what we were expecting and had chosen, and now we are also witnessing removal of the only person that was actually doing our interests. I was trusting the University in being able to give the same importance to its courses, even to new ones, but I have only felt that our cohort and the Gender Studies MLitt were of secondary, if not none, importance. I am seriously questioning whether I made the right choice for myself to invest such an amount of money in an institution that is not providing me with the support that is required and the academic path that I expected. In addition, I am now in the position of having some ethical reservations in economically support an institution that treats an early career woman in this way and that does not consider, both academically and practically, issues of inequality and discrimination of primary importance.

I spent the summer of 2020 excited for something new and challenging to start in the middle of unstable circumstances. The first semester of the Gender Studies MLitt was interesting and enjoyable, and I never could have imagined how different I’d feel starting semester two. The handling of Dr. Kerr’s case by the University is shocking to hear both as a member of the student body and as a person who deeply cares about equality and inclusivity. I chose this university because of the values it boasts and the reputation for transparency and diversity that it has. Instead of proving that reputation is grounded on reality, I have felt ignored and isolated by almost everyone I have reached out to within the university. The strange policy of refusing to give direct answers to myself and the rest of my cohort about the content of our course and the future of our MLitt, has affected not only my mental health and wellbeing but the trust and excitement I feel for being in St Andrews at a time when none of us can take much negative news. Gender Studies is already an extremely difficult discipline to access for the vast majority of the world, but it is one that matters. Indeed, this is why I made the effort to leave my home and my career, pay a considerable amount of money, and join a new and exciting degree taught by a woman whose work I found enthralling. I can only hope this is not the end of the Gender Studies MLitt, although there seems to be little effort and interest in continuing to support it. It is an understatement to say I feel disappointed by the way the discipline I love and an academic I admire have been treated. The excitement I felt at the start of my degree has, unfortunately, disappeared.

2020 was a weird year. It started with wildfires and ended with national lockdowns. However, during that summer I decided to take a risk and follow a topic that had been a passion of mine. Gender issues have always been something I was innately aware of and I was looking forward to exploring the topic in an academic setting. The course that the University of St Andrews provided looked perfect to me, an interdisciplinary approach to Gender with the attachment of a large institute was amazing to me. This was the first cohort, my parents warned me that there could be issues with it and cautioned me to reconsider my other options before accepting the University’s offer. I dismissed their concerns, this was the University of St Andrews, I had heard so much about it and was so excited to join their first Gender Studies cohort.

It was exciting to meet everyone, even more so when we all got along and our programme lead was so inviting, understanding of my philosophical limitations and encouraging. After the first few classes, I felt like I had hit the course jackpot. Little did I know at the time Dr Kerr was not being paid for the classes she was giving. This is outrageous and unconscionable, how does the University of St Andrews justify launching a course and failing in the most basic premise of paying its staff. There is also a certain sense of irony that the woman behind the Masters was taken advantage of and then replaced by men. 

The lack of transparency provided to the cohort, who came back from the Christmas break to be provided with no information to what was going on. I will admit to being particularly disappointed as to how the university treated members of the cohort who asked for information and answers, we were dismissed and generally felt ignored by the university staff. Seeing as St Andrews features second on the 2020 Guardian University League Table, with student satisfaction being so highly rated, I am disappointed with our treatment. We were kept in the dark with no information on our course and a very sudden and unexpected change in staff surrounding us. When we enquired post this change we were told that we had a suitable replacement and to move along, and although that is true, that was not the point of our inquiry. We wanted and still want the university to be transparent with us. The redundancy of Dr Kerr is unacceptable and it is shameful that the university has not granted her what her experience and her academic contributions (by not only creating the MLitt but also StAIGs) deserve.

As a collective, my cohort of MLitt Gender Studies students have decided to provide testimonials of the impact the redundancy of Dr. Alison Kerr has had on our studies. Many of my peers have highlighted issues of mental health over the uncertainty with which our semester began, not to mention the anxieties of being part of a course that had to be rebuilt from the ground up the weekend after our first scheduled class; hardly the standard expected from such a renowned institution. 

I am sure the administration will reply (if it deigns to reply) to these concerns the same way it did when replying to our private emails: a curt apology and the insistence that despite the glitch in getting things running, all is well now. We have been provided a replacement and nothing beyond that is considered our business. I beg to disagree. The administration is attempting to enforce the professional boundary that separates students // professors // management, and whilst I understand a certain level of professionalism is needed in order for the academic system to work, it is currently being used to isolate actors for the benefit of the status quo, not scholarship.  

Nobody joins academia for the money. We all know that. A degree of cynicism is needed to even consider staying on after churning out that 2:1 undergrad investment, a cynicism which acknowledges one is pursuing passion over pay checks. However, that begs the question – what is it all for? Who is benefiting from a department’s study of ethics when the very people studying it are not treated ethically? Why teach us of power relations just to reinforce the faceless complaints system that consists of escalating and re-escalating and re-escalating until all complaint has been lost but ‘acknowledged’? 

It’s true, the administration has managed to put a bandaid on the wound and found us a competent replacement for Dr. Kerr. However, as a student with parents who never thought it was a good idea to try to make it in academia (“a poor investment”), it’s embarrassing to see all my parents hesitations come true to someone I held in high esteem. They were right: no matter how fruitful the contributions one makes to a university, the university is counting down the days on your contract for redundancy and replacement. I repeat, management is correct: in terms of my module GD5503 I’m all set, but in doing so they have impacted me far more fundamentally than switching a reading list. They have taught me that there is a pressing need to reform academic management because the exploitation we learn about in class happens in those same classrooms to those teaching us.  

I suppose it’s true that the rose-tinted glasses I’ve always had for St Andrews since the day I showed up as an overly excited fresher had to come off some day, along with my faith in meritocracy. Put simply, Dr. Kerr’s redundancy marks a shift in my cohorts optimism for the future as we now understand how remorselessly we will be treated when it’s our turn contribute to academia. The university may have won the short term victory of patching our module, but it has lost in the long run by losing the good faith of a whole generation of promising scholars.

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