Yvette Solomon
ESRI, Manchester Metropolitan University
• Women’s self-positioning as ‘not belonging’ (Solomon 2007)
• ‘Doing mathematics is doing masculinity’ (Mendick, 2006)
• Girls and women in mathematics ‘are required to don a cloak
of invisibility that affords them temporary status as honorary
males in a male domain, speaking a male mathematical
language’ (Walls, 2008)
• Mathematics is a particular
case of storying the self
• It illustrates how voice,
contradictions, and hybridity
can be understood in terms
of agency and becoming
• Challenges in analysis of the interview
– ‘Cherry picking’ versus ‘analytic rigour’
– Avoiding a static picture of identity
– Recognising the role and place of the interviewer as
• Bakhtin and Holland present theoretical lenses
which draw attention to
Contradictions and hybridity
Agency within apparently predetermined spaces
Diachronicity and the becoming self
Struggle and resolution
Appropriation of, and resistance to, language in the
• Roz was not allowed to take ‘A-level’ (post-compulsory) mathematics,
because she had ‘only’ got a B at ‘O’ Level (age 16 examinations)
• She went back to studying mathematics to support her three sons at
• At 44 she went to a ‘post 1992’ non-research-intensive university,
where she gained a 1st class degree in mathematics
• At 47 she went to a prestigious research-intensive university to study
for a masters degree and then a PhD in mathematics
• At 52, she was a post-doctoral researcher at the same university
• I have interviewed her four times:
Her second year undergraduate
Third year undergraduate
Beginning her PhD
In the first year of her post-doc
• We have talked about her ongoing mathematics career, the past,
present and future, her family, her parents and being a mother
• Dialogism – consciousness is ‘otherness’
• Addressivity – we are constantly in the process
of addressing and answering ‘others’
• “The word in language is half someone else’s”
• Heteroglossia – multi-voicedness
• The space of authoring – the narrativised self
• Recognition of power and position – positional
identities (drawing on Bourdieu)
• Orchestration of conflicting voices
• Hybridity in the enactment of self
• Ventriloquation by ‘authoritative discourse’
• Rupture and resistance
• ‘World making’ (drawing
on Vygotsky’s idea of play
and imagination)
An essential (constitutive) marker of the utterance
is its quality of being directed to someone, its
addressivity… [The] addressee can be an
immediate participant-interlocutor in an everyday
dialogue, a differentiated collective of specialists …,
a more or less differentiated public, ethnic group,
contemporaries, like-minded people, opponents
and enemies, a subordinate, a superior, someone
who is lower, higher, familiar, foreign, and so forth.
And it can also be an indefinite, unconcretized
other....(Bakhtin, 1986, p. 95)
I always feel like I’m struggling, I always feel like I’m trying to aim
higher than I can really achieve and somehow I get there, I don’t
know how I get there. If you’d told me three years ago I’d get a
masters degree from X university I’d have laughed in your face, if you
had told me 5 years ago I was going to do a degree in mathematics
and get a first I’d have laughed in your face ..... because I think when
people say negative things about my ability those are the things that
typically I retain. [YS: so it stuck?] Oh yes, very much so.... Every time
I struggled with something this voice would come back you know
‘you’re no good at maths, you won’t do it, you won’t cope’, that
was their words, ‘if it was more like O level then you’d be fine but
it’s not..’ ...[but ] I will believe that I can’t do it when I try and fail, so
I kind of believe it but I need the evidence... I’m now doing a PhD and
I’m convinced that I can’t do a PhD I’m convinced that I will embarrass
us all [laughs] but at the moment it’s not happening.
[At the master class at the university] I really had a paradigm
shift sitting in that lecture, hearing about some operational
research to do with how they optimise airline schedules.
And for the first time ever I realised maths could make
people’s lives better. I mean I always thought that
mathematical research was all about people inventing
harder and harder sums to make people’s lives more
miserable. And to have this idea that actually maths can
describe the world and make it a better place for people,
was just completely blew me away – and that’s really where
it started, that’s why I’m here now I think.
The everyday aspects of lived identities … may be relatively
unremarked, unfigured, out of awareness, and so unavailable as
a tool for affecting one’s own behavior. … [But] Ruptures of the
taken-for-granted can remove these aspects of positional
identities from automatic performance and recognition to
commentary and re-cognition. (Holland et al, 1998 pp.140-141)
This disruption happens on the collective level as well. Some
signs of relational identity become objectified, and thus available
to reflection and comment…. Alternative figurings may be
available for interpreting the everyday, and alternative ways of
figuring systems of privilege may be developed in contestations
over social arrangements. (pp.141-2)
… it was almost always one of the five of us who got the got
the top marks, we used to call ourselves the A team.... but I
think there is a certain element that likes to be competitive
in the men whereas when we were a little group we
worked together ... and I could genuinely be pleased when X
got more marks than I did ... so long as one of us got it, it
was in the family... I’m not kidding myself, of that little
group I was not the top, I mean I’m the one who’s gone on to
do postgrad at the moment but that’s just the way things
happened really, any of them could do it probably better
than I could if they wanted to. So ... there isn’t the same
competitive edge, I don’t feel competitive..
• The word in language is half someone else’s…it exists in
other people's mouths, in other people's concrete
contexts, serving other people's intentions: it is from
there that one must take the word, and make it one's
own (Bakhtin, 1981, pp. 293-294).
• Language is not a neutral medium that passes freely and
easily into the private property of the speaker’s
intentions; it is populated – overpopulated – with the
intentions of others. Expropriating it, forcing it to submit
to one’s own intentions and accents, is a difficult and
complicated process. (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 294)
Within the arena of almost every utterance an intense interaction
and struggle between one’s own and another’s word is being
waged, a process in which they oppose or dialogically interanimate
each other. The utterance so conceived is a considerably more
complex and dynamic organism than it appears when construed
simply as a thing that articulates the intention of the person
uttering it, which is to see the utterance as a direct, single-voiced
vehicle for expression.
Consciousness finds itself inevitably facing the necessity of having
to choose a language. With each literary-verbal performance,
consciousness must actively orient itself amidst heteroglossia, it
must move in and occupy a position for itself within it, it chooses,
in other words, a ‘language’. (Bakhtin, 1981, p.295- 354)
There was a lady, the only time we ever had a lady
lecturer ..... everybody hated her ..... because she
didn’t dress properly. And this was a big thing for
a lot of the girls, she looked like she was just doing
her housework .. she was wearing flat shoes or
trainers with socks and trousers which didn’t quite
reach her trainers … When I started lecturing … I
thought “it’s important to them that I dress
professionally and I see myself as” – you know –
females are underrepresented in mathematics
anyway, so … people must understand they don’t
have to give up being a woman to be a
mathematician …
• ...the voices, the symbols, are socially inscribed and
heteroglossic. Often the voices are in conflict… These voices
will have to be put together in some way.
• In a situation of heteroglossia different languages and
perspectives come inscribed with differing amounts of
authority, which suggest how they might be orchestrated.
• In Bakhtin, escape from being ventriloquated by first one
then another authoritative voice comes through the
orchestration of and adoption of stances toward these
voices… (Holland et al pp178-185)
I have a theory – The Essential Difference by Simon BaronCohen? .... I did the tests and I have a male brain … maybe
because I have a male brain I was not picking up the
unspoken signals of my female group [at school]. … When I
got to [university], majority male, I was completely in the
right place and all of a sudden it was OK to be me. Because
the backdrop is majority male, then I’m female in that
context, but if I’m in with a lot of very feminine women then
I’m not.
...because I’m in a male context my femininity looks
like femininity whereas if I’m in a very female context I
feel like the man almost ... I feel at the male end of the
perspective, I’m thinking analytically, I’m thinking
..‘does that really hold?’, this kind of thinking process,
analysing things, and I really can’t get excited about
shopping I really can’t and I can talk about fashion for
maybe three minutes. ... It really is trivial ... with men
that really doesn’t come up and the things that they
talk about are really interesting.
One can significantly reorient one’s own
behavior, and one can even participate in the
creation of new figured worlds and their
possibilities for new selves, but one can engage
in such play only as a part of a collective. … The
space of authoring, or self-fashioning, remains a
social and cultural space, no matter how
intimately held it may become. And it remains,
more often than not, a contested space, a space
of struggle. (Holland et al, 1998, p.282)
• What are the possibilities for becoming?
• How does liberation from the particular determinations – the
entrapments – of our cultural worlds come about through the tools
shaped in those worlds for their perpetuation? (Holland et al, p. 64)
• … persons and, to a lesser extent, groups are caught in the tensions
between past histories that have settled in them and the present
discourses and images that attract them or somehow impinge upon them.
In this continuous self-fashioning, identities are hard-won standpoints
that, however dependent upon social support and however vulnerable to
change, make at least a modicum of self-direction possible. They are
possibilities for mediating agency (p. 4)
• .. the ‘metapragmatic’ capability to figure social practice – through
narrative, drawing, singing, and other means of articulation – is at the
same time a capability to figure it otherwise than it is. (p. 143)
• “Activity predicated upon a figured world is never quite
single, never quite pure. It is dialogized, figured against
other possible positions, other possible worlds.” (Holland
et al, p.238)
• Bakhtin’s emphasis on the ever presence of multiple
voices means that there is always potential for new
• I argued in 2012 that Roz’s overt struggle in choosing a
language suggested a potential for new meanings.
• Roz’s story as constructed with me wasn’t fixed; the act of
telling became part of her story as it happens, and
entered her past – so how did she self-author afterwards?
Recurring themes:
• Being a feminine mathematician – “I
coordinate my lanyards with my
• Making the world a better place
New themes:
• Being a good mother
• Changing the department culture
I don’t think I’m very good at relationships
(...) I read … what’s it called … Simon BaronCohen – The Essential Difference. Made a lot
of sense to me … and I’m definitely a
systematiser. And I think that … well I think
an explanation which really satisfies me,
which I don’t necessarily claim to be
absolutely true … is that I don’t pick up the
unspoken social cues that generally girls have.
So I was always violating some unspoken rule
or other, making me unacceptable … but I
didn’t even know what that was. And so
coming to that conclusion really released me
from the angst of why did I never have friends
when I was a child.
I think women are generally accepted in mathematics as you know … you know
they can be good mathematicians too … but I think the ones that are, tend to be
very frumpy in their dress, they tend to be very masculine in their dress. It’s
almost as if they’re still trying to hide their gender…. And there’s a young lady,
and she’s absolutely delightful, but … she wears glasses and not contacts, she
puts her hair in a ponytail, no make-up, always sort of jeans and a top … not a
particularly feminine top, just a regular T-shirt. … you know I don’t in any way
disrespect her choices, but I just think well maybe she feels the need to do that,
either consciously or otherwise.
I thought … you know there’s a part of me that
wants to be dressed like a proper woman as well,
but there’s also this kind of thing going on that
actually you know I want to show that I can be a
proper woman and I can dress … I could wear heels
and I can wear a skirt and dresses.
… the women I’ve met here who are a similar age to me, they
tend to be quite aggressive. And I think that if I’d gone into
maths at that [earlier] age I’d have had either very sharp
elbows or I’d have crashed out. But I don’t want to become
like that … and I recognise that they’re only responding to their
environment, but I think the world’s moved on a bit … I’m
hoping it has anyway … and I hope that I can … you know I can
be gentle … as well. That’s what I’m hoping for, and I think
maybe the self conscious - making sure that I dress like I would
if I was an office receptionist or something like that is part of
wanting to be like that…
... I want to start things that I think are good. I don’t want to
leave a legacy for legacy’s sake, but I like to change things for the
better...… I’m in a place where people think that my social skills
are valuable, and .. I keep getting invited to do things because I
am who I am ... and this is very nice…
… I tend to become a bit of a hub now … and I’m the person who cares about
the fact that there should be cohesion in the department and relationships
should be built, and the new person should feel welcome … even though I
wasn’t … and all this kind of stuff. So I think I found my niche. Because in a
more empathetic setting, I would probably be the person who would be
behind on those things. But in a sort of setting like this, I can then flourish.
… I can actually be very feminine here.
One of the things I was doing is comparing statistical mathematics and
machine learning for tailoring treatments to patients. … making
people’s lives better. And now it’s … networks for food security decision
support. So I’m helping … I will be helping both people who are
suffering a food crisis, and also the decision makers …. So again there’s
a very strong people element. And we’re working with people from
Politics, people from Social Sciences, people from Life Sciences as well –
crops and so on. So again very multidisciplinary, very practical, down to
earth. … I love coming in to work – it’s because of the people element.
I think the next battleground is to be seen as a
competent mathematician and a proper lady at
the same time. … I want to assert my right to
dress like a woman and still be taken seriously as
a mathematician ...
The self authors itself, and is thus made knowable, in the
words of others…. If, to be perceptible to others, we cast
ourselves in terms of the other, then we do that by
seeing ourselves from the outside.
…authorship is a matter of orchestration: of arranging
the identifiable social discourses/practices that are one’s
resources in order to craft a response…. Human agency
comes through this art of improvisation… The histories
that give shape to spaces of authoring… are thus…
compulsory and liberatory, in degrees that vary greatly.
In answering (which is the stuff of existence), the self “authors” the world –
including itself and others. … Because the self is the nexus of a continuing
flow of activity and is participating in this activity, it cannot be finalized…
(Holland et al, pp. 173 & 272).
There is neither a first nor a last word and there are
no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the
boundless past and the boundless future). Even
past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of
past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended
once and for all) – they will always change (be
renewed) in the process of subsequent, future
development of the dialogue. (Bakhtin 1986, p. 169)
"Let me tell you
about my trouble
with girls.
"Three things
happen when
they are in the
lab: you fall in
love with them,
they fall in love
with you, and
when you
criticise them
they cry."

Authoring Selves