This is the second in our new series ProfFile: informal interviews with leading or under recognized critical health psychologists. For out first ProfFile see here. This month’s ProfFile is with Professor Catriona Macleoad at Rhodes University in South Africa. The lead organizer of the 2015 ISCHP conference , Catriona is a trailblazing academic who has helped bring feminist theory into critical health psychology. Her book ‘Adolescence’, pregnancy and abortion: constructing a threat of degeneration (published by Routledge) was awarded the Distinguished Publication Award by the Association for Women in Psychology, based in America.
What is your current position?
I am currently the SARChI Chair of Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction, Professor of Psychology at Rhodes University in South Africa, and editor-in-chief of the journal Feminism & Psychology.
Could you say a bit about your career trajectory so far?
I started off as a high school Mathematics teacher. While it was never my desire to be a Mathematics teacher for ever, it proved very useful in allowing me to work and save money in order to return to university and complete my post-graduate degrees. After my Master’s degree, I worked for an organisation called the Wits Rural Facility, which combined research and community –based interventions. I went on to work at the University of Zululand in the Educational Psychology Department, and completed my PhD at the same time. I then moved to East London in South Africa where I worked in the Psychology Department of Rhodes University and the University of Fort Hare. Ten years ago, I moved to Grahamstown where I headed up the Psychology Department. I was appointed to the SARChI Chair at the beginning of 2014, and now devote all my time to research.
How did you get to be where you are today?
Gosh, this is a hard one. I don’t think there was ever anything like a straight line, rather the good fortune of particular opportunities, trying out various possibilities, some of which were successful and some of which failed, and a passion for the kind of work that I do. Some of the opportunities have arisen because of my being willing to stand up concerning issues of justice: this has led to much vigorous debate, but has always resulted in respectful and constructive engagement in the end. I have also worked with an amazing group of colleagues and students. This has been extraordinarily important in terms of feeling part of a community of practice. It has always been vital for me to feel that the work that we do matters (at least a little) – the rest (where we land up and in what position) seems secondary to this.
When did you decide to be an academic? What was it that prompted this decision?
I always thought that I would become a practicing psychologist. However, half way through my internship I realised that it was simply not for me. I did, however, love the research that I was doing. I was very fortunate to have one of the first feminist psychology scholars in South Africa, Ann Levett, as my research supervisor in my honours year. She continued to act as a support in my Master’s degree research. This meant that I started off doing the kind of research that I continue to do to this day. Well, in those circumstances, there really was no contest, and I have been at it now for over 20 years.
What have been the challenges so far in your career in academia?
I can think of two major challenges: balancing demands and learning to deal with feedback on my research. In terms of the first of these, I was Head of Department of two Psychology Departments for nine years. In both cases, the departments were undergoing significant changes, meaning that a lot of my time was spent managing processes and containing the difficult emotions that arise during change. Although it was a privilege to be in this position, I also found it quite draining. I managed to keep up my research during this time, but it was a challenge. In terms of the second challenge, learning to not be disheartened by copious comments on my work has taken time. What has helped tremendously is now being editor of a journal and seeing how virtually all our submissions attract ‘revise and resubmit’ or ‘accept with revisions’ decisions. In three years, we have not yet accepted a manuscript as is. I have also noted how manuscripts are vastly improved (including my own) by the generous input of reviewers.
What advice would/do you give to other critical psychology academics?
Crumbs. None, really. Okay, perhaps: seek out like-minded colleagues, even if they are not at your university; give a lot of your time and energy to supporting students and early career academics; balance the very serious business of social justice with humour and fun; select topics that keep you up at night because they are important, interesting, and will make a difference; be passionate and enthusiastic as much as you can.
What are you currently working on?
As I now head a rather large group of twenty post-graduate students and post-doc, I am working on a range of things broadly under the auspices of the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programme. The Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programme is a multi-disciplinary programme funded by the National Research Foundation South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI), the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, SANPAD, Rhodes University and the British Academy International Mobility Grant. It draws on the expertise of a number of researchers both within Rhodes University and at universities/NGOs in South Africa and across the world. The aims of the CSSR research programme are to analyse: (1) discourses and narratives (the technologies of representation) concerning sexualities (e.g. sexual orientation, ‘adolescent’ sexuality) and reproduction/pregnancy deployed in public and private spaces; (2) the interstice between carers (such as health service providers and teachers) and the recipients of sexual and reproductive health or education services (the technologies of intervention); (3) the range of taken-for-granted assumptions or absent traces (e.g. regarding the nature of adolescence, mothering, family formation and function, race and class) that underpin interventions with respect to, and representations of, sexuality and reproduction; (4) how the governmental technologies of representation and of intervention achieve or undermine gendering, racialising and class-based effects, and lead to the continuation or discontinuation of sexual and reproductive health inequities; (5) the manner in which particular discourses, narratives and practices regarding sexualities and reproduction are maintained or resisted in the everyday lives of men, women and their families; (6) the manner in which the technologies of representation and the technologies of intervention promote or hinder sexual and reproductive health, sexual and reproductive citizenship and sexual and reproductive justice; and (7) how equal sexual and reproductive citizenship may be promoted through policy and practice. More details can be found on our web-site: http://www.ru.ac.za/criticalstudies/.
And lastly, making reference to critical health psychology research and theory contrast and compare the following: dogs and cats. Well, of course, lizards and monkeys. I thought that would be clear to everybody. No need for grand theory or even research. Some things are just common sense. But then again, on second thoughts, hmmmmm, perhaps not …. I will have to come back to you on that one.