On Monday 26th February 2018, I got up, early as usual, and switched on my computer. I was surprised to see that I had more emails than usual. They all had the same title.
She was gone. Judith Baxter, my wonderful supervisor, mentor and friend, had died very suddenly that weekend.
The reality of this fact hit me hard and fast. I couldn’t see straight. I called my husband, who was heading off to work, and asked him to come back. Then I pulled myself together, took the kids to school, and left to teach a 9am lecture about language, gender and sexuality, a large portion of which introduced Judith’s work on gendered discourses in the classroom.
I got through the lecture, went back to my office, and sobbed in to my keyboard – a thing I would find myself doing a lot that week, as the messages, tributes and condolences rolled in.
I was annoyed with myself for taking her death so hard. What right did I have to feel this loss so deeply? She was not my family, or even a particularly close friend. Surely this right to grief belonged to others. But over the past few months I have come to reflect on what she meant to me, why I was so affected by her death, and why I have not yet found a way to fill the hole that she left behind.
I think that I understand the significance of our relationship now. Judith was – she still is – absolutely central to my sense of belonging in the academic community. Life as an early career researcher is unsettling. I am in a perpetual state of uncertainty about my future, and feel like I am being constantly tested, appraised, scrutinised and graded. Quite frequently, under this spotlight, I am found to be lacking, in one way or another. But Judith was the rock to which I anchored myself. An academic giant of phenomenal intellect and achievement; she was strong, opinionated and brave. She was willing to put herself out there even when she felt most uncomfortable, which I believe happened quite a lot. And she was my supervisor. She believed in me. That meant everything; her outrage when I didn’t get the post I applied for, her absolute certainty that what I was doing was worthwhile, and that I was going to succeed. I am immensely proud to be associated with her, and honoured to have had the privilege of receiving her advice and mentorship first hand.
Moving forward, there has been no shortage of opportunities to commemorate Judith’s life and achievements. At the most recent meeting of the BAAL language, gender and sexuality special interest group, of which Judith was a key member and chaired between 2010 and 2013, Helen Sauntson and Jo Angouri gave a touching tribute to her work and her wide-reaching influence. Jo and Helen will be publishing a print version of this talk in the next edition of BAAL news (which will be posted here). The latest issue of the journal of Gender and Language, where Judith published a great deal of her work and sat on the editorial board, is dedicated to her memory. At Aston University in November, we will be holding an event in honour of Judith; this will be a wonderful chance to celebrate her life and work in an extended way, and in the company of her beloved family.
As for me, I am finding that Judith was not the only one who was rooting for me. No one can replace her, but the support of the many other wise and strong women in my academic life is keeping me tethered, albeit that little bit more loosely than before.