I’m having a break. At least for the next six months or so I will be working in the real world at the foreign languages desk of an international news agency in Berlin. It seems like a crazy thing for a historian to do, and most of my friends and colleagues in academia have seemed somewhat shocked on hearing the news. How could I possibly think of leaving behind such a much-coveted thing as a full-time, permanent academic job?
The thing is, I’m not sure I will. But I wanted to give journalism another go. For the past couple of years, working in the parallel universe that is academia, I’ve been wondering many times what would have happened if I had stayed in journalism, got myself a job with a newspaper or even gone freelance. So I’m trying to find out now whether I’m ‘done’ with journalism or whether there are still avenues I need to explore.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being a historian. I enjoy my research and writing, and there are so many things I still want to write about. I also enjoy my teaching, and I can get really excited when one of my dissertation students comes up with a new idea. Supervising PhD students can be great fun too, especially seeing them make good progress, going to conferences, getting their first publications out. You end up feeling like a proud mum.
Alas, research, writing and teaching has come to be an ever smaller part of my job, so small even that I sometimes barely remember I am a historian and not an administrator. While I should be in the archive trailing through manuscripts and crumbly letters, I’m actually stuck at my desk in the office filling in forms and compiling statistics, rewriting programme specifications and thinking up marketing strategies. So I’ve been feeling more and more that this is not the job I once eagerly applied for, and it’s time to reassess my priorities and weigh up my options.
My university was really good about it. They’ve allowed me to go on an unpaid ‘career secondment’, where I can take six months off from my academic duties and follow different interests as long as they would benefit the University in the long run. If I return I’m sure they will. It certainly won’t do the University any harm if their academics learn how to write intelligibly and concisely for a wider audience, nor will it be a disadvantage to have some media connections. Even our students might benefit as I would be able to report back to them on what working in the real world is like and how best to get a placement in journalism. I could teach them about employability and transferable skills – something all history graduates should be aware of. (more…)
Following a recent staff survey which saw many of my colleagues complain about long working hours and an unhealthy work-life balance our Faculty recently introduced an e-mail curfew. According to this curfew no work-related emails should be sent before 7.30 am or after 6.30 pm Monday to Friday or at the weekend. While the Faculty’s heart (does THE FACULTY have a heart?) was certainly in the right place, the curfew was not.
One of the few perks of having an academic job is that I can – lectures, seminars and meetings excluded – do my work whenever I want, provided I get it done. If that means working until 2am on Thursday morning and not going into the office until 2pm, so be it. Us creative types usually don’t really do the nine to five anyway. But if I’m then not allowed to sent out any emails after 6.30 pm I have only half a day in which to get things done.
To accommodate people’s flexible working patterns, the suggestion was then made to save drafts of the e-mails we were planning to send and auto-release them from the e-mail system during official working hours.
Since my technical skills are severely limited (I’ve only just worked out how to send a meeting request in Outlook) I won’t even go there. Nor do I see the point of saving a lot of e-mails in my draft folder at 10pm only to send them out next morning as one of my well-meaning colleagues suggested, as this would mean handling each e-mail twice thus adding to the working hours this measure was actually meant to reduce. You know the one about the spirit and the letter of the law. (more…)
Despite the plethora of literature that has been published on the English Revolution and Restoration over the years, the topic of exile during this most exciting period of British history remains an understudied area. There is still much unseen primary source material to be uncovered in European and North American archives and plenty of gaps in knowledge to be filled. With Writings of Exile in the English Revolution and Restoration Philip Major has taken the plunge and produced a fascinating yet somewhat disjointed book.
Tackling Edward Hyde as the ‘Case Study of a Royalist Exile’ the first chapter engages with ‘many of the key corollaries of dislocation and dispossession with which royalist exiles are habitually preoccupied’, including ‘the loss and reassertion of identity; displays of stoicism, patriotism, friendship and nostalgia’ and the ‘intense debate on the discernment of divine providence’. These are accessed through ‘a close reading of Hyde’s Contemplations and Reflections on the Psalms of David’ (27) begun during his first exile on Scilly, Jersey and elsewhere during the 1640s and 50s and completed during his second exile in Montpellier in the late 1660s and 70s.
Chapter 2 on ‘Ceremony and Grief in the Royalist Exile’ explores the reaction of royalists ‘to the death of fellow exiles, as well as friends and family left behind in England’ (67). Major highlights the extent to which the use of the Book of Common Prayer in burial rituals as well as other Episcopalian traditions gave displaced royalists a shared sense of identity, while deaths within the exile community also enhanced Prince Charles’s public role and helped to revive the patriarchal image of King Charles I, which after the regicide was transferred to his son.
Chapter 3 deals with ‘Royalist Internal Exile’, primarily focusing on the banishment of royalists from London and their confinement to the countryside where focus on friendship networks and shared value systems and traditions resonated with issues pertinent to external exiles.
In his final chapter, Major then turns to the regicide ‘William Goffe in New England’ after the Restoration, showing that some of the key themes of exile such as ‘the choice of the place of refuge; the symbolism of the journey into exile; the critical importance of correspondence; the influential, sustaining role of Christian … belief; … and the attitudes of the exile towards the homeland from which he has been displaced’ (139) were similar to those we find in Hyde. Intriguingly, Major also observes that we find parallels between Goffe’s and Hyde’s use of the Psalms and other Biblical texts in their exile writings revealing their shared Protestant experience. (more…)
Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall I have finally finished reading Divided Heaven by the East German writer Christa Wolf. It is a love story ended by the separation of the two Germanies, completed by the construction of the Wall, which aimed to prevent the defection of Eastern Germans to the West.
In Wolf’s novel the female protagonist Rita, a young woman from the East training to be a teacher, is in love with the academic Manfred, who one day fails to return from a conference in West Berlin. Manfred sends Rita a letter from the West, asking her to join him. But even before she visits him in the fateful summer of 1961 she knows that she cannot stay.
Rita’s heart is in the East – with the people in her little village and with the workers in the factory, where she spends her summers. She is not attracted to the well-stocked shops in the West or the flashing lights of the big city, and in the end her love for her home, her socialist ideals and her wish for a break with the Nazi past is greater than her desire to be with the man who betrayed her trust.
It is an odd story to read twenty-five years after the socialist dream collapsed. It is a book that sheds a very different light on what it was like to live in the East. While Wolf does not shy away from criticising the rigid rules, the hypocrites and the corruption of the GDR system, she also shows the reader that there were real people with real ideals on the other side.
As usual with many failed political systems it was not the ideas, but the brutal manner of their execution that led to their downfall.
I used to think that I was the only saddo still on the computer while everyone else was down the pub on a Friday night. Turns out that’s not the case. I received several work-related e-mails from academic colleagues during the hours when other people were getting drunk last night, and on opening my mailbox this Saturday morning there was another load, including one sent at 6am apologising for a late contribution to an edited collection. Sometimes I get e-mails from colleagues sent at 2am or 5am, when I’m usually in my bed (NB for academics: That’s the thing in your bedroom that has the mattress on it. Some people use it for something called ‘sleep’.)
In this 24-hour culture academia has become, overworked staff have to function like clockwork or the lectures won’t be prepared for Monday, the essays returned by Tuesday (along with the latest chapter submitted by one of your PhD students you annotated over dinner), the article submitted by Wednesday, the funding application on Thursday, the review written on Friday and the UG Open Day be prepared by Saturday. If you dare to take Sunday off, you might find yourself stumbling unprepared into your 9 am seminar on Monday.
I have frequent rants to my friends and family about unsociable working hours, unreasonable workloads and the lack of a work-life balance. Surveys by the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) or by The Guardian regularly show that academics are struggling with work, with life, with bullying, with mental health.
Yet, as long as there are people willing to work unreasonable hours for the sake of their reputation, their publication record, their career, or simply to show that they are good colleagues, committed teachers and that they can hack it, they are collaborating with a system that will eventually get them down. And if one of us leaves their ‘cushy’ job (that’s what outsiders seem to think), there will always be another desperate colleague on a temporary contract or a recent PhD to take our place.
So much for the general mood in academia these days. I’ll have a break to do my shopping now.
There is life outside academia, and by that I don’t mean that people are having more fun elsewhere. I am only suggesting that an academic career is not the natural, or even the most desirable outcome of a university degree.
As a lecturer in early modern history at a post-1992 university I know that only few of our undergraduate students will progress to a Master’s degree, and even fewer will embark on a PhD in the subject. Out of the few who do, not everyone will end up in an academic job; and with a highly volatile job market increasingly dependent on short-term temporary positions even a post-doc or a one-year teaching contract are not a guarantee of future employment in the sector.
Nevertheless, many universities still do too little to prepare their students for real life, while lecturers (in fairness) might not be the best qualified people to do so, as one of my colleagues pointed out at a recent meeting discussing ‘employability’. After all, most academics would have proceeded straight from their undergraduate degree to postgraduate study, finishing it all off with a PhD within seven or eight years before embarking on a career in research and teaching. The odd bar job aside, few academics will have seen much of the world of work outside when they are let lose on their undergraduate students. (In fact, I often feel a bit like an outsider because I worked in journalism for a number of years before becoming a full-time academic.)
Nevertheless, the percentage of graduates in appropriate employment within six months after leaving university is a key criterion in league tables measuring the success and quality of a higher education institution, and academics are supposed to prepare their students for the job market. So what can we do? (more…)
I dispensed with proper lunch breaks about six months into my first permanent full-time academic job. With lessons to prepare, essays to mark, admin to do, and – heaven forbid – research somewhere on my list, it seemed frivolous to set aside an hour or even thirty minutes each day just to eat a sandwich and have a chat with my colleagues in the staff common room.
Besides, with my colleagues around, most lunchtime conversations would be work related – discussing student problems, documents to be submitted or lesson prep – only reminding me of all the things on my to-do list, which seemed to be growing with every bite off the sandwich. So I decided to eat lunch at my desk instead.
Available for work
Alas, being at your desk implies that you are available for work. More often than not when I’m chewing away while going through my emails someone, either a student or a colleague, will knock on my door and demand that I drop my lunch to attend to whatever problem they are presenting me with.
You could argue that I should just not let them in. But our office doors have little windows we are not allowed to cover, in case there’s a fire and the fire warden needs to check if we are in. (I suspect the window is also there to monitor more sinister goings on, but let’s stick with the fire story for now.) (more…)
The little northern German town of Wolfenbüttel is known for two things: Jägermeister and the Herzog August Bibliothek or HAB. While the popular digestif is made with a large variety of herbs and spices, the HAB research library is the meeting place of a large variety of scholars from all around the world, who gather mainly over the summer months to enjoy a period of quiet research away from their Jägermeister-consuming students.
Home to about 1m items, including more than 400,000 imprints from the early modern period, the HAB is one of the largest research libraries of its kind in Germany and a first-class place to get some quiet writing done, while also meeting a lot of exciting people.
With its well-preserved early modern architecture, quaint half-timbered houses and beautiful churches Wolfenbüttel offers an ideal environment for the (art) historians, literary scholars, musicologists and theologians who trail through the documents in the reading rooms of the famous Augusta or in the seventeenth-century ‘Zeughaus’ – a former armoury – next door.
The HAB research centre offers a number of prestigious fellowships for PhD students and post-doctoral researchers at all levels, enabling them to spend between one and six months away from their home institutions, while accommodation is provided in nearby guest houses. If you are lucky, you might even get the chance to stay in one of the visitors’ flats in the Lessinghaus, where the famous eighteenth-century librarian of the Augusta lived during his time in Wolfenbüttel.
The first time I had my daily coffee with the other fellows in the garden of the Anna Vorwerk-Haus (named after the nineteenth-century head of the local girls’ school) this summer I noticed that we were sitting under Jägermeister parasols. I thought this was a good joke, as the bright orange covers looked rather out of place in this scholarly environment, until one of the PhD students pointed out, that Jägermeister was made here in Wolfenbüttel.
As it happens, the local company had donated the parasols as well as supporting the work of the HAB in other ways. So we soon started joking that we should encourage our students to drink more Jägerbombs as they were indirectly supporting our research.
On the other hand, the parasols were a daily reminder for me that I yet had to prepare next semester’s teaching and that I had to read my research students’ draft chapters. Instead of letting me forget my students, the omnipresence of the stag on orange ground thus served as a constant reminder of my university duties, while I was away on research leave.
Having spent two happy months at the HAB this summer I now know (among many other things) that there is a link between Jägermeister and academic research after all. I will remember that next time I find myself in a pub with my students. Jägerbomb anyone?
Is it ok to laugh about Hitler? This seems to be the one big question critics have been asking themselves about Timor Vermes’s Look Who’s Back – a novel about Adolf Hitler waking up in 21st-century Berlin seeing a confusingly modern world through a Nazi lense.
Some teenage boys playing football on a field must be the Hitler Youth training, the large number of Turks in Berlin an indicator that they did support Germany in World War II after all. But Hitler is also impressed by the clever demagogy of the German Bild newspaper with its many pictures and extra large type, regretting that ‘the zealous Goebbels’ did not have that idea first, or the Nazis would have found ‘much more enthusiasm’ for their ‘cause’ amongst the elderly population.
The sight of what they take to be a Hitler lookalike shocks many Germans in the book. Yet, none of them take him seriously. They all think he must be a method actor and comedian out to challenge and provoke the German public, testing the limits of freedom of speech. Instead of arresting him for war crimes, Hitler is thus given his own TV show, where he is allowed to do and say whatever he wants as long as he agrees that ‘the Jews are no laughing matter’. (more…)
The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander is a historical novel set in the murky world of London’s coffee houses on the eve of the Glorious Revolution. The son of an English dissenter and a French Huguenot, its young redhead hero Calumny Spinks lives under the shadow of his father’s dark secret dating back to Oliver Cromwell’s time which takes his mother’s life and traps him in the poverty of the weaving milieu.
Yet, he is determined to escape his fate and make his way in the world in the newly emerging coffee trade, which is at times only fractionally above board. Along the way, he meets crooks and wise men and a range of strong women, who teach him a thing or two about life and love, and that hardly anyone is who they appear to be at first sight.
Torn between the scheming daughter of a wealthy coffee trader, a popish seamstress and the waitress of a coffee house, who all carry their own secrets, Calumny stumbles from one adventure to the next as he uses his wit and ability to imitate voices to climb up the social ladder.
Calumny Spinks, telling name and all, is an old-fashioned hero, his first-person narrative of the chancer in dire straits reminding the reader of the picaresque novel of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Yet, Alexander wears his history lightly. (more…)