The History Woman's Blog

24 Hours in Academia

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on November 1, 2014

happy_woman_in_front_of_lap_top_by_mrphilips-d5ncb4tI 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.

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Life outside academia

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, History by thehistorywoman on October 25, 2014

AlienGetty460There 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…)

How to get some quiet time over lunch

Posted in Academia, Comment by thehistorywoman on October 18, 2014

lunch-breakI 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…)

Pretend less, read more

Posted in Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on March 15, 2014

nerd-glassesSince being a nerd has become cool I don’t like it any more. Big glasses are no longer the indicator of a visual impairment caused by too much reading, and pasty skin is less likely caused by long hours spent in libraries, archives or labs. It’s more likely the result of an overpriced holiday in Finland and cleverly applied make-up.

It is now socially acceptable, even hip, to be seen sitting by yourself in a murky café reading Camus. It is even more so if you’re wearing a baggy jumper you found in a charity shop, while frantically scribbling notes into your Moleskin notebook or are indeed staring into your MacBook. Not even questionable personal hygiene or unkempt hair are a safe indicator that the person next to you is a borderline genius.

On the other hand, real nerds are now heading to the gym to fight the pen pusher’s wobbly thighs and bingo wings, while buying the pretty plaid skirts and cardigans now cheaply available in American Apparel. So how am I supposed to tell them apart?

Chances are you will never know if someone is a real nerd until you have seen them walking into a glass door or actually had a conversation with them. In conversation, watch out for tell-tale signs: if the first association they make with the name ‘Churchill’ is that of a nodding dog in the back of a car, they might not be the real thing. If they can tell the difference between Thomas and Oliver Cromwell, you might be on to something. (more…)

Keeping the customer satisfied

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education by thehistorywoman on February 18, 2014

UCU_posterStrike action might be entering the hot phase later this year as the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has approved ‘a marking boycott to be implemented from 28 April if university employers still refuse to thrash out a deal over pay’.

The Universities and Colleges Employers Association ‘have so far refused to engage in any meaningful talks over pay, despite six strikes since October 2013 and increasingly vociferous complaints from students about cancelled classes and missed seminars.’ So their employees are now going to strike where it hurts most, and it is the students who are going to suffer.

It is unfortunate that things had to come this far. Academic staff do not want to hurt their students. Lecturers are aware how important marks are to them, especially to final-year and postgraduate students who are going to apply for jobs and will be desperately waiting for their results. But nothing else will now make a difference.

As the UCU points out, in recent negotiations

This is untenable.

Academics are not greedy. Most of us are in the job we do because we love it. We are a bunch of geeks who enjoy research, writing and teaching. We want to share our knowledge with our students. Most of us could get much better paid work elsewhere. But we are still here because we care, and university bosses are taking advantage of that. They know we would not abandon our passion for research and teaching over a couple of quid a month. So they put the pressure on and see how far they can go. (more…)

The survey that didn’t surprise us

Posted in Academia, Comment, Education, News by thehistorywoman on October 19, 2013

Stress-ZebraStripesSome surveys shock us, others fill us with a sense of relief that it’s not just us. The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) survey undertaken by the University and College Union (UCU) does both.

The summary of key findings  states that nearly two thirds of the 7,000 respondents said they thought the REF had ‘a detrimental impact on the sector’ and believed it created ‘unreasonable expectations of research outputs’. More than half of respondents also said they would ‘like to see the REF replaced by an alternative method.’ Among the most shocking, though not surprising, findings was that ‘67% of all respondents (and 73% of women responding) felt unable to undertake the necessary work on REF outputs without working excessive … hours.’

In UCU’s 2012 Stress at Work survey ‘over 59% of respondents in HE indicated they worked 46 or more hours a week’ (while being paid for 35), and ‘over 35% worked 51 or more hours.’ Over half of the respondents felt ‘pressured to work long hours’, with many citing the REF as contributing factor to this pressure.

I don’t need a UCU survey to tell me that. I have seen my colleagues panicking about getting that last item for their REF submission out on time, panicking about the quality of the book they had to rush out before the deadline, even though an extra month or two might have enabled them to add that extra bit of research that would have given it the edge. I have also panicked myself hoping to exchange an item I didn’t like so much by something I felt would rate more highly. I have also chided myself for spending my time editing collected essays while the University keeps telling me the two books I have been so proud of and enjoyed so much producing with my friends and colleagues won’t count much in the world of the REF. They want monographs and articles in the top journals. You know the story.

Balancing research and teaching

Another key problem cited in Section 10 of the report, which covers workload issues, was the inability to meet the demands of the REF while undertaking regular teaching duties, including lesson prep or giving feedback to students. According to the survey, the stress caused by the REF is ‘combined with the increasing administrative duties that academics face, including teaching-related administration, grant applications and the significant amount of bureaucracy related to the REF itself.’

I find myself so many times politely (or not so politely) ushering students out of my office to finish that lecture Power Point five minutes before I have to go to the next class, or putting the finishing touches to an article or a chapter before it has to go to the journal, editor or publisher. Conversely, I have also found myself taking home a piece of work because I was talking to a student and didn’t manage to finish it in the office. I hardly ever finish in the evening what I set out to do in the morning, and then I get another email from Registry that I was meant to hand in form X, Y or Z – yesterday. And have I marked…? In other words, something has to give, and in many cases – poor conscientious creatures that we are – this is our free time. (more…)

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Why transnational history doesn’t work quite yet

Posted in Comment, Early Modern, History by thehistorywoman on September 22, 2013
Europa regina

Europa regina

Most historians would agree that transnational history is a good thing in theory. Yet, as an article by Jeroen Duindam of Leiden University in the European History Quarterly (2010) has reminded me, many of the same historians would also agree that it doesn’t quite work in practice. There are a number of reasons for this beyond what Duindam calls ‘the strengthened need for identity and confirmation in an age of global change and insecurity’.

On a very basic level, historians find it difficult to produce work that transcends national boundaries because we simply lack the skills and time. While we would like to be specialists on more than one country and language region, access to archival sources and lack of linguistic skills might prevent us from following down that path. Besides, in order to detect parallels across regions and nation states we might need to study a broader range of issues across time as well as space, as characteristic changes (Reformation, Enlightenment, Industrialisation) might have happened earlier or later in one place than in another. (more…)

The Library Basket

Posted in Comment by thehistorywoman on August 28, 2013
The KB library basket: practical style.

The KB library basket: practical style.

The Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB) in The Hague has solved all my problems – with the library basket! The coveted item looks like any old shopping basket you get in Tesco’s or in Boots, and it holds everything you might need inside a library reading room: a laptop, a purse/wallet, a notepad, pencils, a memory stick, tissues, a mobile phone (switched off), and even your own books, if necessary. No more balancing of 100 items on top of a laptop, no more worrying that the clear plastic bag might break if you put your computer in, and no more piles of rubbish for library staff to clear away at the end of a day. So it’s even environmentally friendly. I propose we introduce them in all the libraries across the UK, or in all libraries everywhere. Well done, KB!

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The Queen and Magna Carta

Posted in Comment, History, News by thehistorywoman on June 15, 2013

I’ve just been writing a lecture on ‘Transatlantic ideas of liberty’ for an Erasmus exchange with Potsdam University in a week’s time. Going through the ideals and principles of seventeenth-century English republicans which would later come to influence the American colonists in the War of Independence and inspire the US constitution, such as political and religious liberty, accountability of office-holders and the rule of law, it struck me once again how quaint and anachronistic the British monarchy appears today as many people in this country celebrate the Queen’s official birthday with the usual pomp and circumstance.

The Queen is not just the head of state, she is also the secular head of the established churches of England and Scotland, she still opens Parliament, she signs Acts of Parliament into Law, and the House of Lords is still a colourful mix of non-representative members. I’m not sure what my republicans would have made of that.

I’m not advocating regicide, but surely the House of Lords should long have been replaced by a fully elected Upper House or Senate. I can just imagine seventeenth-century republican pamphleteers poking fun on the Lords involved in the latest ‘cash-for-access’ affair. They would have denounced the corruption of privilege and the decline of virtue.

At the same time as the Queen’s official birthday, both the British and the Americans are also celebrating the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede on 15 June 1215. This document, in which King John acknowledged to his rebelling barons that the monarch was subject to the law and endorsed principles such as Habeas Corpus and trial by jury, should mean so much more than people in fancy uniforms parading around London.

But then, if Britain didn’t have its Queen, who would confer honours on the Blackadder team?

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Foreign Languages and the Historian

Posted in Academia, Comment, History by thehistorywoman on May 4, 2013

If you don’t have any foreign languages as a historian you’re stuffed. This is not just true for those of us who decide to undertake research on a foreign country or do any sort of comparative or transnational study. My own work on a seventeenth-century English republican thinker took on its very own dynamics when I found out he had been on his Grand Tour as a young man in the 1640s as well as spending considerable time in exile in Italy after the Restoration and continued a regular correspondence with his Italian friends and acquaintances throughout his life.

Luckily, I had done some basic Italian at school and found Italian friends and colleagues who helped me with some essential translations when I was doing my PhD. I still continue lessons now with an archaeologist friend of mine, who is not only a native speaker but also knows her way around the archives. I’m eternally grateful that people like her exist, because historical research needs support from able linguists.

Yet, our research culture is not equipped for language learning. With many universities closing down their language departments over a lack of student demand, the few people still interested in learning a foreign language have to go elsewhere for support, and it is by no means clear who is going to pay for the extra expense of private tutors, grammar books and dictionaries or even an intensive course abroad. (more…)