In the early evening of Monday 6th February, Deborah Lynn Steinberg died following a long battle with cancer.
Any experience or knowledge we might have of another person’s life is necessarily partial. It is limited by how long we have known one another, how intimate or honest or open we might be with each other, and the context of our relationship: are we friends, colleagues, or mere acquaintances? In the academic world, our relationships are mediated through the complex interaction of power relations, institutional/departmental location, and what we share (or where we diverge) intellectually.
I considered writing an obituary for Deborah, touching upon important events in her life, and outlining her impressive achievements as a researcher, writer, editor and teaching. She is the author of numerous books and a great range of journal articles and book chapters that address issues of gender and sexuality, popular representation and the scientific imaginary. She has provided critical commentary upon heterosexual norms, neoliberal politics, fertility and eugenics, media spectacle, the politics of mourning, science fiction (and science ‘fact’), Blairism, and genetics. In the final years of her life, her experience of cancer informed a project entitled The Bad Patient, in which she analysed the “struggles of subjectivity” emergent in cultural discourses around cancer.
While many of Deborah’s writings have influenced me, in this piece I take particular inspiration from the way her latter work took her own subjective position as “patient” as a starting point for an analysis of a far wider media terrain. This is not a dispassionate obituary: rather, it is a celebration of what Deborah has offered to the world, informed by my relationship with her as a student and – more recently – as a junior colleague and friend.
Deborah was my supervisor throughout my MA and PhD. The relationship that is forged between supervisor and student is always unique, and frequently feels intense even if both parties maintain a professional and emotional distance. Deborah described the PhD process as an academic apprenticeship. I have always felt this is a highly apt description. A good supervisor does not simply advise the PhD student on their research and writing; they also introduce their student to a range of analytical tools, and act as a mentor, overseeing the student’s induction into the Academy. In this way, the supervisor is a powerful and deeply important figure in their student’s life.
When I began my doctoral studies in 2010, my cohort included several students studying under Deborah’s supervision. Some referred to ourselves as the “Deborah Club”, and swapped notes on our experiences of the supervisory relationship. A number of us initially found this relationship to be a somewhat intimidating one. The breadth of Deborah’s knowledge and experience was prodigious, and as she drew extensively upon this during early supervisions it felt almost as if she was talking at us rather than with us. It was frequently difficult to interject. In later years I would come to realise that this reflected two very different sides of Deborah. On the one hand, she was a reserved individual, with little patience for the niceties of small talk; on the other, she was someone whose mind was constantly working, developing new ideas and looking at issues from all angles.
As we got to know Deborah better, it became apparent that she cared very deeply indeed for her students, and our projects. Her guidance was always wise and thoughtful. She was typically very assertive in requesting that we try a specific method or utilise a particular theory in our writing; however, on occasions that a student had a principled disagreement, she would always respect and work with this. She was not at all sentimental, but was always encouraging and supportive, and spoke about our studies with excitement and interest. She was above all a champion of our work. I can recall numerous occasions on which a fellow student would enter a supervision with Deborah feeling anxious or worried about their PhD, sometimes in tears; they would later emerge imbued with a renewed sense of confidence and possibility.
Deborah’s style, personality and knowledge had an enormous impact upon her students. In the hours that followed the news of her death, many of us reached out to one another and swapped stories. We spoke of the ideas and theorists she favoured, and of “Deborahisms”: turns of phrase we had inherited through our supervisory relationships. In this way, a part of Deborah will always be with us, carried through our respective academic (and non-academic) careers in the years to come.
My friend and colleague Iggi Moon once described Deborah as someone with a great sense of “intellectual generosity”. This was something that defined my relationship with her as a PhD student, but also others’ relationship with her as an academic peer. I saw this while working with Deborah and Iggi to organise the Re-theorising Gender and Sexuality: The Emergence of Trans seminar series at the University of Warwick. Deborah was increasingly ill as the series progressed, but she never lost her enthusiasm and interest in the ideas discussed at the event. She was the driving force behind subsequent proposals for a journal special issue and edited book, to promote the work of the seminar contributors through further dissemination of their ideas. From the very beginning of the editorial process, she offered extensive, carefully tailored feedback to prospective authors who asked for advice. At the same time, she treated me with great respect as a collaborating organiser and editor, confounding the unspoken hierarchies of academia.
Deborah’s powerful mind and passionate interest in the pursuit of knowledge persisted to the end. In her final months, she received numerous visits from colleagues and former students, and remained keen to hear about our lives and work. Her growing frustration was palpable as the cancer first took her hands and then her voice; nevertheless, she continued to offer strong and heartfelt advice on the preparation of our book during my last visit.
Deborah’s words will continue to travel with others long after her passing. These are the words she has written, yes, but also the words she has offered more directly to others: her guidance, her ideas, her turns of phrase. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to remember the strong, opinionated, profoundly intelligent and greatly generous woman I knew.
Ruth Pearce is a researcher and tutor based in the Sociology Department at the University of Warwick.