Jess Butler

PhD student


I am an AHRC-funded PhD student researching contemporary academia.

Working thesis title: From the ivory tower to the neoliberal marketplace: gendered ideals, competition culture, and discourses of success and failure in early 21st-Century English higher education.

This project takes as its starting point the position that dominant academic culture is less than ideal, especially for those who do not belong to socially dominant groups. Centring on English higher education, but tracing the norms of the western academy more broadly through analysis of discourses from traditionally idealised ‘ivory tower’ conceptions of academia to contemporary representations of the neoliberal ideal in higher education, I demonstrate that a common factor is competitiveness.

Where there is competition, there are winners and losers, successes and failures. Those with a greater knowledge of the playing field, or with attributes that confer advantages, are better equipped to come out on top (and thus continue to define the rules and requirements). But what aptitudes does the ideal, winning subject embody, and are their features culturally associated with particular kinds of physical bodies?

Drawing upon my experience of both working and studying in HE for the last 10 years, this research takes a poststructuralist feminist approach, using critical discourse analysis to pull together theory from a range of disciplines and empirical data from interviews with academic staff. I aim to discover in what academic activities, policies, and related literature a culture of competition, and its surrounding discourses of success, winning, and failure, manifest, and how. It investigates whether an ‘ideal’ academic, or multiple ideals, emerges from this, considering in what ways these are gendered constructions, and to what extent images of the ideal are internalised or resisted by individual academics. What is the personal and professional impact of negotiating any disparity between the perceived ideal and subjective identities, values, and aptitudes? My research considers what these questions can offer to wider discussions of inequality in higher education and its potential remedies.