Rachel Sykes


Accepting PhD Students

PhD projects

I’m interested in supervising research on:
• Contemporary memoir and autobiography, particularly women and LGBTQIA+ authors;
• Feminist, queer, and/or disability theories;
• Digital cultures, particularly social media and online information sharing practices;
• Contemporary literary and popular culture, particularly TV, pop music, and music videos.


Research activity per year

Personal profile


I come from a poor, rural background and worked many different jobs before and during academia, including medico-legal administration, selling books on tape, teaching English in Russia, and writing for local papers in Shropshire and Dublin. I also worked for Midlands4Cities Doctoral Training Partnership as their administrator from 2014-2015.

As an undergrad, I studied at Moscow State University, the University of York, and Mount Holyoke College, before undertaking postgraduate work at the University of Oxford and the University of Nottingham, where I specialised in American Studies. During and after my PhD, I taught English and American Studies at the University of Nottingham, the University of Leicester, and Nottingham Trent University.

I joined the University of Birmingham in 2016, where my teaching focuses on contemporary literature, particularly life-writing. Since joining, I have expanded teaching of gender and sexuality studies as well as pop culture and critical theory. Through the Centre for Contemporary Literature, I’ve hosted lectures by scholars like Sara Ahmed and conferences on contemporary canon formation. In 2023, I led EDACS’ successful application for Athena SWAN Silver. 

Research interests

My research and teaching focus on memoir and contemporary life-writing, digital and popular cultures, and their intersections with gender and queer theory. I am currently working on a study of ‘confession’ under neoliberalism and write regularly on feminist politics in contemporary literature, TV, and pop music. I previously worked in sound studies, focusing on the dynamics of loud and quiet as concepts in American culture. 

Oversharing, confession, and the politics of disclosure 

My current book project debates the use of autobiographical experience in feminist activism, focusing on the centrality of whiteness and colonialism to discourses of truth and believability in both the US and UK. It analyses recent literary and cultural texts through the lens of contemporary feminist, postcolonial, and queer theories to question the cultural centrality of disclosure, confession, and transparency in neoliberal cultures.

Related publications include articles on institutional autobiography (European Journal of American Culture), gender, race, and lyric confession in poetry and pop music (Routledge Companion to Music and Literature), and oversharing (Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society). 

Neoliberal feminisms and fantasies in pop culture 

A second strand of my research responds to current and emerging feminist themes in popular culture, particularly the relationship between feminism and fantasy. I’ve written on literary millennials and representations of publishing on TV (Post-45), The Good Wife’s imagining of Hillary Clinton as president (Journal of American Studies), and the maternal politics of Bridget Jones’ Baby (The Independent). 

Loud and quiet in American culture 

My first book, The Quiet Contemporary American Novel, developed a theory of quiet as an aesthetic of literature. It traced the evolution of the term in American literature and culture since 1850, arguing that ‘quiet’ is often seen as an essentially ‘un-American’ trait that retains the potential to be ethically and politically disruptive in depictions and discussions of American imperialism. Both here and elsewhere, I’ve written extensively about Marilynne Robinson and Teju Cole, publishing a co-edited volume on Robinson’s often unexamined contemporary political contexts in 2022.

Related publications include articles on quiet in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels (Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction), noise in depictions of 9/11 (C21 Literature), and representational problems in ‘9/11 fiction’ (Recovering 9/11 in New York). 

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality


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