Sisterly bonds through Macro and Micro-aggressions spanning 40 years

Heather Wren is a PhD student in Education. Her research explores empathy in education in relation to the environment, looking at it through a New Materialist lens so that the nonhuman come to the forefront of the research alongside the human to provide a more-than-human outlook.

This blog is written by me and my half-sister who share the same Indian father. My sister Karina has Indian heritage from both of her parents whilst my mother is white British. We grew up in different generations (me in the 1970s and 80s and Karina in the 1990s) and in different parts of the UK and had no idea each other existed at the time. Since meeting we have talked a lot about our experiences growing up and racism against us is something we have both experienced all our lives. We write this blog to share these experiences which now span nearly four decades in the hope of bringing awareness to the long fight ahead that we all have as anti-racists.


I never knew my Indian dad as my mum left him when I was a baby in 1971. Following this we lived at my grandparents’ in a decent area of Birmingham until I was 10. During this time, I had absolutely no idea that I was ‘different’ as nobody ever mentioned my mixed race. As I was to find out, this was an early lucky escape due to the heavy presence of groups with racist ideologies such as The Anti-Paki League and The National Front who had sprung up in Thatcher’s Britain when she declared that Britain was ‘swamped by people from other countries’.

When I was 10, we moved out of my grandparents’ house and moved into a council property on a Birmingham estate. The first day at our new house I went to play outside. Whilst playing, a much older lad came up to me, called me a Paki and kicked me down in the middle of the road. He kicked me a few more times when I was on the floor and told me to go back to where I came from. I was 10. Years. Old. Shocked and traumatised, I ran back to my house crying. I had no idea why he did that to me. Why did he target me in particular? What did he mean go back to where you came from? This was to become a regular occurrence in my life.

Following this event I was often spotted by other children who called me a Paki and barrage me with both verbal and physical abuse. In particular a gang of three girls would beat me up every single time they saw me. Then an older girl started to join in. One day I was walking on another estate and I got singled out by a kid with an air rifle who shot me in the head. By this time, I was 11 years old and had suffered one year of constant abuse for having slightly different coloured skin to them and black hair. The children got to know where we lived and one day they sprayed ‘Pakis’ go home’ on the front of our house. There were also threats made to burn us in our beds so I couldn’t sleep at night.

I began to tell lies about who I was – telling everyone I was Italian to try to stop the abuse. I put talcum powder on my face to try to whiten my skin. I was so angry with my dad for being Indian. I hated him. My self-esteem bottomed out and I was further abused as a result. I felt depressed and suicidal most of the time. My anxiety shot through the roof and I eventually started to run away from home because I couldn’t cope. I felt like I was in a constant state of shock. After running away on and off and sleeping rough for about a year, I was put into care for my own safety. I stayed in care until I was old enough to leave home.

Growing up mixed race in the 1980s, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. This issue has stayed with me throughout my life and I find it difficult to accept society as I feel that it failed me. I also have found it difficult to settle anywhere, join groups, stay in a career etc.

Lately, I have gained a degree, a PGCE, two master’s degrees which focused on inclusive education and I am currently studying a PhD. What has kept me going through this is the thirst for social justice fed by my own abuse. I have recently begun to research post-colonial education where I finally feel I belong. It makes me feel like I have the power to make change. With recent energy directed towards protests it has made me sit up and take action more. I am hoping that this blog is part of that action.


I grew up in Greater London in the 1990s with a single mother and a brother. During this era, I never experienced overt forms of racism such as that suffered by Heather in the 1970s and 80s. However, it was the period where Stephen Lawrence was murdered just because of the colour of his skin. Obviously as a child I wasn’t aware of institutional racism and the impact it could have for people like me. Nor was I aware of micro-aggressions related to race faced in everyday conversations (a micro-aggression is subtle and often in the guise of a compliment; for example often people asked me if I were ‘mixed race’ as I appeared more ‘liberal’ than Indians and well spoken).

My mother moved to the UK from north India in the early 1980’s where she met my father in Birmingham. They had a failed marriage and in order to protect us from him she moved out of Birmingham and came to live in London. My paternal grandfather often told us stories about how he was invited to this country to rebuild it after the war. He was a carpenter and proudly retold stories about his handywork. He juxtaposed his proud British identity with feelings of being unwanted and not belonging; as he often told us stories about signs outside pubs that said ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Indians, No Dogs’. Now that I am older, I can’t imagine how he navigated such a world so openly opposed to him, whilst also so desperately requiring his services.

Due to the representations of Indian women as highly stereotyped and almost caricatured in the media, I battled with dual identities; of being Indian and different and also of my British culture and wanting to ‘fit in’ with my peers. I recall feeling embarrassed if my mother spoke to me in Punjabi in public or feeling worried that I smelt of Indian food. This is ironic now as I love Indian cuisine and am proud to be bilingual.

What I now find most frustrating is the question by strangers or acquaintances of ‘where are you from… no I mean REALLY ‘where are you from?’ The question they are asking is not my geographical location in the UK but of my cultural and ancestral home. It always confuses me why people choose this wording; it tells me they think I simply could not be from the UK based solely on the colour of my skin. It always makes me wonder how educated they are about Britain and in fact all of Europe’s colonial history. Our curriculum in history never taught me about the thousands of Indian soldiers who enlisted and supported the war efforts. Our history books never taught me that grains of rice were sent from India to feed the UK population whilst there was a famine in India during the Second World War. If perhaps this was taught more clearly perhaps people would not ‘other’ me so quickly by asking me where I am really from.

I hope this blog helps to shed light on our experiences of non-white British people and help you to understand that we are more alike than different.


Written by: Heather Wren

Challenges of PhDing as an Older Student

Philippa Juliet Meek is a PhD student in Theology and Religion. Her research examines public perceptions of fundamentalist Mormon plural marriage based on media representations and what those representations look like in comparison to the realities of Mormon polygamy as it is practiced today. Philippa has previously gained degrees from the University of South Florida, Durham University (where she was a member of University College), and University of Wales, Swansea. She has been surviving lockdown with her partner Richard, who is a commissioned officer in the Royal Navy, and their two dogs: Khaleesi and Jenny.

Tackling a PhD is undeniably a challenging and daunting task fraught with financial concerns, and the pressures of publishing, presenting conference papers, and networking in order to create links that can hopefully lead to success once one enters what is an extremely competitive job market. For older students with established lives, which may include additional financial commitments and families, life as a PhD student can become even more of a challenge. Particularly in cases where one has been in the workforce and has to give up a good income to return to university.

Yet while PhDing as an older student can include additional challenges and commitments, it can also be an enriching experience both for the student and their family. There are some tricks to make the transition easier, as well as ways in which PhD life can fall in sync with family life. A great one for me has been to mirror my partner’s work schedule and leave periods, rather than the university holidays. This has ensured that we get to take time off together at the same time. Fellow ‘older’ PhD students with children have also told me how they have been able to sync their work schedules with the times their children are at school or otherwise engaged.

When living with a partner who also has a demanding full-time job, it can be a challenge to make sure work schedules don’t conflict too much so that childcare needs, or pet care, are taken care of while also giving students the opportunity to attend conferences and travel for research. My personal situation is compounded by the fact that my partner is in the Armed Forces and therefore the demands of his job are perhaps more rigid than those whose partners work in the civilian sector; with frequent moves being par for the course. However, we have been able to make things work by using shared diaries on apps such as the calendar on our phones and planning ahead. Other families have their unique circumstances that will affect their personal situations.

In other aspects of life, especially in lockdown, we have managed to figure out some tricks that help things work smoothly, such as utilising separate rooms to work in if conference calls would distract the work of one another. Many times, the words, ‘I’ll cook dinner tonight’, can be a Godsend when I’m on a roll and want to get a few more words written down before ending the workday. Likewise, ‘why don’t we finish early today and go for a walk’, can be heaven-sent words when suffering from a tired brain suffering from writer’s block.

Recently, during my upgrade viva, my partner took our dogs out for a run and then entertained them in the garden so that they wouldn’t cause any disruption. He was also on hand with a cold bottle of champagne in hand to celebrate with me afterwards. While entering into a PhD as an older student can be a tough family decision, it can also provide the student with a level of support that they may have missed out on if they entered their PhD at a younger age, which can ultimately make for a positive and enriching PhD experience.

Written by: Philippa Meek

Twitter: @philippajmeek

An Update on the Supporting PGR Writing Project and the launch of a new resource!

Kelly Louise Preece is the Researcher Development Manager for PGRs in the Doctoral College. You’ll recognise her face from workshops, her voice from WEBINARs, and her jokes from the 90s. You can follow her on twitter @Preece_Kelly for musings about Researcher Development and the PGR experience…interspersed with tweets about superheros, sewing and cute cat photos.




As some of you will know, in 2018 I received a grant from the University of Exeter Alumni Annual Fund to develop practice, training and resources to support PGR writing. As we come to the end of the second year of the project, I want to provide an update on the project, what we have achieved so far and introduce a brand new resource we have developed to support running PGR writing groups.

I also want to take this opportunity to reflect on the impact our writing groups have been having during the Covid-19 pandemic on our PGRs productivity, wellbeing and often sanity. Our PGR facilitators well and truly stepped up during lockdown, enabling the Doctoral College to run at least one online writing group a day throughout the pandemic. I am writing this blog post as I co-facilitate an online writing retreat with PGR Sam Jones. We have 22 PGRs joining us for the day to shut up and write, interspersed with discussions of writing, coffee, cake, and this afternoon a little bit of dinosaur origami (seriously).

But back to the task at hand – an update on the project. The original objectives of the project were as follows.

  • To develop a structured approach to offering writing groups to our PGRs

During the early stages of the Supporting PGR Writing project in 2017, (BF – before funding)  I worked with academic and poet Dr. Sally Flint to develop and articulate a writing group format that was unique to Exeter. Although our work draws significantly on the practices of Rowena Murray and our colleagues Sarah Dyer and Siobhan O’Dwyer, Sally and I brought our own experiences as creative practitioners in the format of our writing groups, making creative writing tasks the cornerstone of our approach. These warm-up creative writing tasks supplement the discussion breaks advocated by Murray, foster a sense of community by working on the same tasks, and providing space of PGRs to explore constructing narratives. During the first year of the project, we articulated and published this format in the Resources to Support PGR Writing Groups handbook.

  • To train and empower our PGRs and ECRs to set-up and run local writing groups

The proliferation of (at least once) daily online writing groups and peer support for writing during Covid-19 is evidence of the network PGR facilitators we have developed, and the professional generosity and sense of community of our PGRs. The evolution of the project has seen a desire to keep writing groups a central, interdisciplinary form of support – it is the shared experience and sense of community that our PGRs value in these spaces, rather than a shared discipline.

To give some facts and figures:

  • As of 29/5/2020, 16 PGRs have delivered 149 writing groups for us, in person and online
  • During the 2017/2018 academic year, we ran 15 writing groups with a total of 79 attendees.
  • With the project funding in 2018/2019, we ran 55 writing groups with a total of 398 attendances
  • So far in the 2019/2020 academic year (up to 29/5/2020), we have run 96 writing groups with a total of 648 attendances, and we have c.100 more groups in plan throughout June, July and August.


  • To create a network of training and support for facilitators, and develop expertise and practice at the university

Our training and support for facilitators has taken a number of formats, including:

  • Online and face-to-face training sessions
  • Providing observations and references for LTHE Stage 2 and Aspire/HEA Associate Fellowship
  • Developing guidance on using writing group facilitation as an case study in applications for Aspire/HEA Associate Fellowship
  • Promoting networking, discussion and practice sharing by email, SharePoint and twitter
  • Developing supporting resources

The first year of the project has a resource output in the form of the Resources to Support PGR Writing Groups handbook, and we are delighted to launch the output for the second year of the project – the Supporting PGR Writing cards.

















This online and hard copy deck of A6 cards collects the creative writing exercises and discussion tasks facilitators have used in writing groups throughout the project. Inspired by Sarah Dyer’s Appreciate: Cards to support appreciative partnership learning, this crowd-sourced resource supplements the handbook and shares the practice of our writing community. You can download this new resource for running PGR writing groups, as well as a version for academic writers more generally. We will be continuing to add to them as the project continues – in fact, as of today’s writing retreat we already have a creative writing task to add courtesy of Sam.

  • To create a culture in the PGR community that values writing time, shares writing experiences and creates a peer-led community of practice

The current crisis, and our PGRs response to it, has evidenced the culture in the PGR community where writing, and peer-led communities of practice are valued. Alongside our online writing groups, we have had Humanities  PGRs running virtual offices and PGR Debbie Kinsey have been running daily workalongs using Twitch (I still don’t really know what Twitch is, but the twitter feedback on these workalongs has been fantastic as have the Lego scenes Debbie has create to accompany them, so I am all for it). Whilst the project in no way takes credit for these initiatives, they are fantastic examples of how our PGRs are leading the way.

  • And finally to impact on the productivity and wellbeing of our PGRs

To evidence our progress on arguably our most important objective, I hand you over to our PGR attendees.


To end, I just want to reiterate the acknowledgements in the resource by thanking all those involved in the development and delivery of the project so far. It is our PGRs and our research community than continues to make this project such a success.

Working as a translator and studying translation studies

Hui-Hua Lu is a PhD student in translation studies at the School of Modern Languages. Her PhD project focuses on the Taiwanese translations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found there. Before coming to Exeter, she taught English for almost ten years in Taiwan and has worked as a translator since 2014. Beginning from 2020, she undertook the role as a teaching assistant at the School of Modern Languages.

When I firstly started working as a translator in 2014, I did not read many translation theories. Rather, I was focusing on finding clients and developing my reputation as a translator. In this post, I would like to share my personal experience of being a translator and how translation studies help and conflict with practical translation.

  • Studying translation:

While translation studies has expanded its scope and is not limited to languages per se, I will still focus on languages in this post to create a link between practice and theory. One of the ways to study translation from a linguistic perspective is to discuss translation strategies. That is, how do we translate a word, phrase, or sentence from one language into another? Do we need to add more information in the target text? Or do we explain something that target readers might not understand? Studying translation strategies allows us to see how and why a translation is approached.

  • Doing practical translation:

In practical translation, thinking of questions like the ones mentioned above is important for translators. This is ultimately because translation is for people who cannot read the language that the text it was written in. However, working in the translation industry, translators may not always have sufficient time to think carefully and come up with the best strategies for a text.

  • The dilemma – faster, faster, faster:

My personal experience is that I never had enough time to think carefully about choosing the best translation strategies for a text, sadly. Most of the time, I am asked to deliver a translation as soon as possible, and sometimes I only have one day for a 1000 word text. While my training in translations studies tells me the importance of translation strategies, my practical translation training tells me to deliver the translation on time. I think that this dilemma will not disappear, but it would be helpful to find a way to deal with it. Therefore, when I gain more experience in translation, I know how much I can translate in a day and what topics I am good at. As a result, I am able to plan my schedule with the workload I can handle and deliver a good quality translation for my clients.

  • The advantages:

What translation studies helps is having a deeper understanding of what translation actually means. My approach to a text implies my understanding of the text and shows my bias or ideology towards the text. Studying translation studies allows me to be conscious of my influence on a text; I always try my best to meet clients’ needs and make a good use of my knowledge of translation studies.

For me personally, translation studies and practical translation go hand in hand. This is because I believe that translation is not purely about the exchange between two languages but has more of a hidden agenda. I still remember when I was studying for my master’s degree in translation when a professor told me that I cannot leave one of them aside. To this date, I still recall what she told me, as I am still studying and doing translation at the same time.


Written by: Hui-Hua Lu

Twitter: @jasminelu19091

My Virtual Viva

Gertjan obtained his doctoral degree in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter in March this year, after successfully passing his Viva in one of the first examinations that entirely took place digitally because of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the first three years of his Doctoral studies, Gertjan was a beneficiary of a studentship of the Centre of Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. He is currently residing in the Netherlands, where he is a lecturer in the Middle East Department at the University of Groningen. Previously, Gertjan taught at Durham University as a Teaching Fellow in Middle East Politics and at the University of Exeter as a Post-Graduate Teaching Assistant. In 2011, Gertjan earned his M.A in Gulf Studies from the University of Exeter,  while two years earlier he earned a M.Sc. in Political Science from the University of Amsterdam.

Following the submission of my PhD thesis, the day of my Viva had been set on the 27th of March. I was very excited about it, as my supervisor Professor Marc Valeri had assembled an excellent examination panel and I was looking forward to return to Exeter to defend my PhD in front of them.  However, things would go differently as originally envisioned. Following the announcement of the closure of the universities in the country I am currently residing, the Netherlands, I decided to contact my supervisor to discuss the opportunity for an online Viva. Soon it became clear in the following week that an online Viva was the only viable option.  Thankfully, the examiners and the chair agreed to this.

As the examination policy had to be revised by the Doctoral College to make a virtual Viva possible it took a bit time before we received the green light. But thanks to the determination and very hard work of my supervisor and Natalie Bartram of the Post-Graduate Research Administration Office the Viva could eventually take place on the original date. In advance Natalie kindly provided me with all the necessary information about how to set up my laptop by attaching it to the modem through an Internet cable (going back to the old days) and instructed me how to test that the Internet connection at home was suitable for the online Viva.

On the day itself it felt very weird to prepare for the Viva in my own house knowing that such a big day in my academic life would take place. When it was time to log into Skype, I sat in a messy office/storage room behind my laptop, hoping the examiners would not  anticipate the presence of a professional bookcase in the background. Thankfully, the chair and examiners did a very good at putting me at ease, while to my great relief the connection was fine and everybody could hear and see each other well.

The Viva itself was challenging but at the same time an unique opportunity to gain feedback on my work. When I was asked to leave our Skype conversation I had mixed feelings about my own performance, but was very pleased about the excellent feedback I had received on my PhD from the examiners. After the official examination, the (psychologically) long wait started until I received after approximately 15 minutes a Skype call through which I could return to the Viva. To my big delight the chair and examiners congratulated me and announced their decision that I had passed the Viva without corrections.

The moment after passing the Viva was surreal, celebrating it in my own living room. Thankfully my parents were able to join me quickly in my celebrations and we opened the usual bottle of champagne to rejoice. I missed my friends and all the wonderful persons at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Institute who had supported me throughout the years of PhD, but thanks to the technology I could video call them to tell them the good news.

Although the experience of a virtual Viva was slightly odd and not what I had envisioned when I started my PhD, I am very pleased that I opted for it in order to avoid further delay to the completion of my doctoral degree. Because of this, I am very grateful to have been granted this opportunity thanks to the support of my supervisor, the Doctoral College and the members of my examination committee.


Written by: Gertjan Hoetjes