Dr Tracy Morison moved to Aotearoa (New Zealand) two and a half years ago to join the critical health psychology team at Massey University. She now teaches health promotion and critical social psychology and is also a research associate of the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction research programme at Rhodes University, South Africa. Find out more about Tracy’s academic journey in this Career File.
How did you embark on a career in academia? What was it that prompted this decision? I didn’t decide to become an academic; I think academia slowly drew me in! In retrospect, I think I was always destined for the academy. I loved learning as a child and was, according to my peers, a ‘boffin’ (as they called Academic achievers then). When I was in grade 4, I I wrote a composition saying I wanted to be ‘an author’ when I grew up. Then, some years later, I explained that I wanted to be a researcher on my honours application. I think academe has allowed me to combine both of these. My love of language led me to qualitative research and in my postgrad years, I also discovered the rewards of teaching and mentoring. So here I am!
Could you say a bit about your career trajectory so far? I think that career ‘trajectories’—much like life itself—are a combination of serendipity, lucky breaks, and particular choices. For me, a turning point was after completing my Masters in Research Psychology. I hadn’t managed to finish the thesis write up by the end of the year and had ended up finishing some months into the following year (2006). At a loose end, I took up a part-time job as a research assistant for Catriona Macleod, who’d just taken up a new post as Head of Department at Rhodes. I was hugely excited and, I admit, intimidated, having read and cited her work.
As it turns out, I ended up starting a PhD under her supervision the following year (2007). I learned so much working for and being supervised by Catriona. I always feel so fortunate that our paths crossed as they did and that she encouraged me to do a PhD. This started my work in sexual and reproductive health. I am now part of a growing group of critical researchers that has become the Critical Studies in Sexualities and Reproduction (CSSR) research programme.
After my PhD, I did a year contract lecturing (2011) and then took up a post-doctoral position at South Africa’s national social sciences council (2012 – 2016), the Human Sciences Research Council and then moved into a senior research role. My time at the Council was challenging, but also very worthwhile. During my five years there I learned skills often beyond the scope of formal academic training, like grant writing and fundraising, policy-based and applied research, knowledge translation and public engagement. I maintained my links with academe as an Honorary Research Associate of the CSSR, which allowed me to continue collaborations and to teach.
Increasingly I realised, though, that I missed academe. I began to keep an eye out for posts at places I’d like to work. When a post became available at Massey University I was very excited at the prospect of working with and being supervised by some leading thinkers in critical health psychology. I did not, at the point, realise how far away New Zealand was. So here I am 11,882 km from Africa in the wee town of Palmerston North, at the tail end of my ‘early career’.
What have been the challenges so far in your career in academia? I think, like many academics, the challenge is about balance. Many academics seem to be achievement driven and that can lead to two big challenges: over-work and competitiveness. I love the flexibility of academe, but it also means that work can creep into all hours of your day. So, discovering what are beneficial boundaries for me (a functional workaholic) has been a learning curve. (Not that I’ve resolved this by any means!) Then, the other challenge: competitiveness. We all know that the conditions of modern academe can lead to comparing and competing. We’re constantly exposed to our own metrics and those of others and I’ve had to learn not to let the numbers dictate the kinds of work I want to do, or the scholar or person I become. I’ve been fortunate to encounter good models: academics who actively resist the tyranny of numbers and the unkind behaviours that we often witness in academic spaces. As a feminist scholar, I want to collaborate, not compete and I think that kindness and care are hugely important—and, sadly, often lacking—in collegial, supervisory, and teaching relationships.
How did you become involved in ISCHP and how has the experience been for you? I was very fortunate that Rhodes Psychology has a strong critical psychology tradition and so members of staff and my contemporaries were attending the conferences. They all encouraged me to go and after attending my first conference (in Bradford in 2012) I discovered a very supportive and stimulating community.
What are you currently working on? There are two highlights for 2019 that I’m looking forward to. First, I’m excited to start a new project next year which is focused on the reproductive politics surrounding long-acting contraceptives. The idea is that this will provide a context to develop an emerging area of feminist theorisation—Reproductive Justice Theory. I’ll be working with associate researchers Jade Le Grice in New Zealand, and Yanela Ndabula and Catriona Macleod in South Africa.
Second, I have a book that I co-edited called Queer Kinship due to appear next year. The book is about “the sexual politics of family-making and belonging”. There are contributions by well-known and emerging South African researchers and activists in the area of sexualities. Some of the work from my project on gay men’s reproductive decision-making and ‘pathways to parenthood’ is included in the book, which is very exciting as this is a very under-researched area. The book has been a long time in the making and it will be thrilling to see published!
Which books or papers would you recommend for those interested in critical psychology, and critical approaches to health? Anyone who knows me knows I love to share a paper or citation—I think of it as sharing the love!
- Vivian Burr’s work is a really accessible place to start reading; her classic Social Constructionism (now in its 3rd edition) is one I always recommend.
- I was personally influenced by Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity by Wendy Hollway and colleagues as well as Culture, power, and difference: Discourse analysis in South Africa edited by Ann Levett et al. and still think these are well worth reading as an introduction to critical psychology.
- For those who are interested in starting to use qualitative research, I highly recommend Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke’s book Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners – it does what it says on the tin!
- In terms of critical approaches to health specifically, the Journal of Health Psychology Special Issue in 2006 on critical health psychology has a range of pieces by leading scholars and gives a great overview of the field at a pivotal moment in the discipline, when scholars were starting to think about what practical relevance the work can and should have.
I think I will stop now!
What advice would you give to those who would like to embark on an academic career or are just starting out?
Find your people and ‘the circle of niceness’ that will help you to do work you believe in.
Sometimes you may have to look beyond your academic department or even university, but the academic community is large and the Internet, fortunately, can connect us.