Dr Rachel Sykes BA, MSt, PhD

Photograph of Dr Rachel Sykes

Department of English Literature
Associate Professor in Contemporary Literature and Culture

Contact details

Arts Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

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. 


  • PhD American and Canadian Studies (University of Nottingham)
  • MSt English and American Studies (University of Oxford)
  • BA (Hons) English and Related Literatures (University of York)


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. 


Currently, I teach between second year theme modules, Gender and Sexuality and Discovering Digital Cultures, and Post-1950 Literature. At third year, I teach Decoding Pop Culture. I also guest lecture on gender, sexuality, disability, and environmental politics from year 1 to MA. 

Postgraduate supervision

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.

Find out more - our PhD English Literature  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


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). 

Other activities

Athena SWAN

From 2020-23, I was Athena SWAN lead in EDACS, submitting our successful application for departmental Silver status in June 2023.

Centre for Contemporary Literature and Culture

I direct EDAC’s Centre for Contemporary Literature and Culture (CCLC), running a full programme of guest speakers, reading groups, workshops, and poetry readings. 

Contemporary Studies Network (CSN)

As chair of CSN, I co-convened a range of activities and public events, including a series of film screenings on the 2016 US election and a special issue of C21 Literature: journal of 21st-century writings. In 2019-20, we ran a series of events on contemporary understandings of and responses to canonicity. 

Marilynne Robinson

In 2016, I co-organised a one-day symposium on the work of Marilynne Robinson and, with my conference organisers, co-edited a special issue of the Irish Journal of American Studies. Our edited collection on Robinson’s work was published with Manchester University Press in 2022.


I have written creatively and critically for a range of publications including The Independent, Review 31, LSE Review of Books, Glasgow Review of Books, The Toast, and This Recording. I have also appeared on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Derby. 


Recent publications


Sykes, R, Daly, J & Maguire Elliott, A (eds) 2022, Marilynne Robinson. Contemporary American and Canadian Writers, Manchester University Press. <https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526134653/marilynne-robinson/>

Sykes, R 2017, The quiet contemporary American novel. Contemporary American and Canadian Writers, Manchester University Press. <http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526108876/>


Sykes, R 2023, '“Never enough, never enough”: institutional autobiography and gendered labour in contemporary North American women’s writing', European Journal of American Culture, vol. 42, no. 1, pp. 7-27. https://doi.org/10.1386/ejac_00085_1

Sykes, R 2020, 'Imagined Hillarys: Feminism, Fantasy, and Fictional Clintons in The Good Wife and The Good Fight', Journal of American Studies, pp. 1-24.

Sykes, R 2017, '"Who gets to speak and why?": the poetics of oversharing in contemporary women’s writing', Signs, vol. 43, no. 1, pp. 151-174. <http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/692482>

Sykes, R 2017, 'Reading for quiet in Marilynne Robinson's Gilead novels', Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. https://doi.org/10.1080/00111619.2016.1165175

Sykes, R 2017, 'Those Same Trees: Narrative Sequence and Simultaneity in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Novels', Irish Journal of American Studies. <http://ijas.iaas.ie/index.php/issue-6-rachel-sykes/>

Sykes, R 2016, '“All that Howling Space”: “9/11” and the Aesthetic of Noise in Contemporary American Fiction', C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-century Writings, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1-20. https://doi.org/10.16995/c21.2


Sykes, R 2022, Confessional Poetry, Confessional Pop: Gender, Race, and the Lyric Form in Modern American Writing and Music. in R Durkin (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Music and Modern Literature. 1st edn, Routledge Music Companions, Routledge, London. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367237288-37

Sykes, R 2018, Marilynne Robinson. in D O'Gorman & R Eaglestone (eds), The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First-Century Literary Fiction. 1 edn, Routledge.

Entry for encyclopedia/dictionary

Sykes, R 2022, Cole, Teju. in P O'Donnell, SJ Burn & L Larkin (eds), The Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Fiction 1980–2020. Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119431732.ecaf0035

View all publications in research portal

Media experience

  • "The Last Days of Books: publishing and the literary millennial in Younger," in New Literary Television, Post45 (2nd November 2021) 
  • “I Love Dick and Bridget Jones are back, but not much has changed for women since the Nineties,” The Independent (24 September 2016) 
  • “Oversharing,” BBC Woman’s Hour (28 September 2015) 
  • “To overshare: the long and gendered history of TMI,” The Conversation (24 July 2015)