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Academic Aunties provides a community of care

The podcast features frank discussions on navigating academic work as a woman, a racialized scholar and a person traditionally underrepresented in higher education.


In the academic workplace, the burden of emotional and administrative labour often disproportionately falls on the shoulders of women and people of colour. This systemic issue isn’t unique to universities in Canada, but as recent research published in Gender, Work & Organization shows, the pandemic has exacerbated the issue, making the informal networks of person-to-person support for marginalized scholars all the more vital.

“We had to paper over the cracks of an institution that was almost sinking,” said Ethel Tungohan, describing how tenuous work in academia felt at the outset of the pandemic. An associate professor of politics and the Canada Research Chair in Canadian migration policy, impacts and activism at York University, Dr. Tungohan had these inequalities front of mind in March 2021, when she launched the podcast, Academic Aunties.

The show’s title plays on the term “aunty” or “auntie,” a name often reserved for figures of any age who occupy positions both at the centre and periphery of an institution (or family), who foster kinship through a no-nonsense approach to life or work that is shared and modelled through unpaid and informal advice, gossip and care. In the first episode, Dr. Tungohan cites the new, emerging field of “critical aunty studies” as one of the foundational ideas to the podcast.

“Before the pandemic, the only way that I could survive in the academy was through these communities of care,” she said about the close bonds she’s formed over time with other racialized women – colleagues who helped her realize that she was not facing systemic barriers alone. From her undergraduate studies on to her PhD, and continuing today among faculty colleagues, Dr. Tungohan reveals that these bonds were formed out of shared experiences, such as being confused with the only other southeast Asian grad student in her department.

“When you’re among a community of support that gets it, there’s always a collective feeling of exhaling and being like, ‘OK, finally we can really talk,’” she said. That candid atmosphere permeates throughout the conversations Dr. Tungohan has with her guests on the Academic Aunties podcast, now in its third season, many of whom she has met through her informal support networks. The conversations she leads as both host and producer take on a comfortable, relaxed tone, which allows the show to navigate topics that are traditionally discussed in private, such as child-care, salary and the effects of institutional racism.

But podcasting the kinds of conversations typically reserved for the privacy of group chats or coffee breaks comes with its challenges. To help preserve that sense of intimacy and trust, the host and her production partners, Wayne Chu and Nisha Nath, treat these conversations with the utmost care and make relationships with their guests their top priority.

“It’s important to see the people who are guests as your partners in this journey of exploring the topic that we’re talking about. This podcast operates on a fully consensual basis where nothing ever gets released without the guest’s approval,” Dr. Tungohan explained. “I think that’s especially important for people who don’t know me and don’t necessarily know how we operate.”

After the episode topics are plotted out in production meetings, guests are selected and take part in a pre-interview process where they become an active participant in shaping the conversation that will eventually make up the substance of the podcast. “Having their consent is really important because ultimately, it’s their stories we’re telling,” said Mr. Chu.

Dr. Nath, an associate professor of equity studies at Athabasca University’s centre for interdisciplinary studies, appeared on the first episode of Academic Aunties, an episode called “A-holes in the Academy,” before coming onboard as a producer. “There is a very intentional commitment from all three of us to ensure that this podcast is neither extractive, nor simply about documenting harm,” she said. “Part of this means bringing joy and laughter into the conversation – Ethel does this adeptly.” A conversation in one episode will focus on surviving a toxic work environment, while another offers a gushing review of Disney’s Encanto – it’s all vital to thriving in academia, the aunties remind listeners.

“The guests are bringing not just their experiences, but analysis, critique and insights that emerge from those experiences and from their scholarly work,” Dr. Nath said. “By seeing that, it already orients all of us to honouring these guests as knowers, with expertise, that we need to listen to, because for many of our guests their expertise is constantly delegitimized within the academe.”

This respect for guests and their stories is connecting with academics and also gaining recognition within the podcasting community, like the Amplify Podcast Network. But Dr. Tungohan is also heartened to hear from non-academics about how the show and its discussions apply to workplaces such as non-governmental organizations. “Folks have responded to me and said, ‘I’m not in academia, but a lot of the things that you talk about definitely resonates with me in my field as well,’” she said.

Each member of the creative team behind Academic Aunties is hopeful that bringing these stories to light is the first step in promoting change. “Academic culture relies on norms of collegiality. But for anyone who comes from an underrepresented or excluded community, these norms usually serve to silence people,” Mr. Chu said. “And because we’re not encouraged to talk openly about our struggles, it makes it much easier for the institution to maintain some pretty abusive practices.”

Academic Aunties makes the case that one can have conversations with colleagues that reveal  vulnerability, openness and personal experience, and that these are valuable interventions and challenges to the status quo. “It’s about thinking about the norms that have informed academic processes and saying, ‘Well, just because things have always been done this way doesn’t mean they always have to be done in that way,’” Dr. Tungohan said. “We can ask different questions and form coalitions and really try to chip away at some of these long-standing norms that have actually produced inequities.”

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