When I left my last academic job, a good friend and colleague gave me Ian McGuire’s campus novel Incredible Bodies, in case I would have any regrets. Like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, it’s a satirical novel about academic life and the dysfunctional characters that populate our universities and take themselves way too seriously, while pretending to shift the paradigms of this world with their research.
At the centre of the novel is Morris Gutman, a thirty-something over-worked and underpaid temporary lecturer in the English Lit department at the University of Coketown, who is still learning the ropes of the system while others are embarking on successful careers.
The aptly-named Gutman is a Candide-like character, who naively stumbles through the academic world thinking hard work, original ideas and compliance will eventually land him a permanent academic position. Alas, he soon comes to find out that it’s all about politics and whether or not certain people in power like you.
Only when an unfortunate car accident and a misunderstanding involving a challenging exchange student and a scheming colleague bring him closer to the centres of power, do his fortunes finally begin to change. (more…)
Three weeks after quitting my job as an academic historian it’s high time I reinvented myself. I might no longer work at a university, but that doesn’t mean I love history any less. On the contrary, maybe I had to leave because I loved my subject too much to see it destroyed by a changing academic culture driven by unrealistic targets, implemented by the corporate whip, and accompanied by an ever-growing array of pointless paperwork.
Naturally, I won’t give up my research, and I hope I will stay in touch with my former colleagues and students. I will just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while (until Jeremy Corbyn becomes prime minister, abolishes tuition fees, and learning for learning’s sake will be valued again).
Admittedly, independent scholars have a bit of a bad name. ‘Independent’ is too often considered as a euphemism for ‘unemployed’, ‘amateur’ or ‘hobby’. Independent scholars are the cranks and underdogs of the discipline, who, obsessed by an idea, send random emails to busy university academics trying to convince them of the value of their projects, while struggling to get access to the most basic research tools and resources. But ‘independent’ also means ‘free’.
I have declared independence from an academic system that has left me unhappy and exhausted, and, at times, properly ill. There is only so much research, teaching and admin you can do in your officially paid for 35 hours a week, while our workloads have been expanding ad infinitum. So most full-time academics either have to cut corners or do serious overtime. From my experience in the ‘sector’ (that’s how academics nowadays refer to their line of work) it’s mostly the latter. (more…)
I’ve done it. I quit my job as an academic historian. It was a full-time permanent job at a decent institution. It was a job I loved. After I sent the email, I screamed – to the bemusement of my friend Fiona, who was staying with me in Berlin for a few days. Then I went to the library and stared at my computer screen for ages. I started crying. Then I felt great relief and started thinking about the new life that was about to start. No more board meetings, no more marking, no more admin.
I would be working as a journalist again. It’s not a career choice known for its security or even respectability (not after Leveson anyway), and yet it’s something I’ve never been able to let go – all those years I’ve been spending at universities, in libraries, researching, writing, completing my PhD, teaching. I’m really going back to my roots.
Back to my roots
I was writing reports for my local newspaper before I even knew what subject I would study at university. I kept writing for various newspapers and press agencies while doing my various degrees, and I would spend university holidays in editorial offices looking for stories. Yet, I always felt I had to do something more ‘serious’. Despite the serious subject matter (there’s no shortage of important and horrifying stories to cover) journalism never felt like work. It always seemed like a bit of fun, a guilty pleasure. So somehow it didn’t qualify as actual work.
History has been like that too sometimes, especially when I’ve just been able to travel to archives and libraries and sit there for hours trailing through the material, getting absorbed into other people’s stories and other people’s lives. Writing things down, getting things published, planning new projects, trialling ideas – all that has been fun too, and I’m not planning to give it up. I might just turn into an independent scholar – at least for a while – until I know where my journey is going to take me next. But more on this anon. On hearing of my uncertain future, a former tutor and now old friend of mine told me to ‘remember what Cromwell said at the end of his life, “No man goes so far as he who knows not where he is going.'” (more…)
Among the many new things I have been learning during my stint at the news agency, the way in which meetings are held has probably left the deepest impression on me. Few of them take longer than ten to fifteen minutes, and the reason for that is that they’re held standing up. As soon as participants start shifting from one foot to the other looking at their watches, the meeting is usually over. Admittedly, journalists are notorious for being short of time, always in a rush. Stories have to be researched, copy has to be filed. Nobody is interested in yesterday’s news.
Nobody, except maybe historians, you might argue. It doesn’t necessarily follow that it doesn’t matter if they waste their time in meetings though. While their sources and archives are unlikely to run away, academic historians usually have stuff to write too, they have to teach and meet their students, and more often than not they have to attend to their admin duties. So please let’s keep meetings short.
Not every single member of the department or subject group has to attend every meeting either. At the news agency, each desk (politics, economics, sports etc) tends to send a representative to the various meetings that are held throughout the day to update each other on the news agenda. Maybe it would be enough to send one member of each research group to meet with the head of subject too, provided of course that they are able to speak for the group, which requires some prior communication and coordination.
I’m pleased to say that researchers at Harvard share my view on meetings. As The Times reported the other day, they have also found that meetings with more than seven people are largely ineffective as ‘it is impossible to pick up body language and subtle cues’. Besides, it is important that whoever is moderating the meeting does so with a firm hand, so nobody can dominate or slow things down with irrelevancies. Maybe we should try that at the next board meeting too and free up some extra time for more important things.
Stop the back pain
Stand-up meetings might also help those of us who suffer from a bad back (and which desk-bound worker doesn’t?). After all, they give us the opportunity to move around a bit, adjust our posture, loosen our neck and shoulders, and take the strain off our lower back. So stand-up meetings might create a win-win situation, in which we all have more time and suffer less pain. If that doesn’t improve our working conditions I don’t know what else will.
The comments made by the famous scientist and Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt at a recent conference in Korea show that sexism is alive and kicking in academia and elsewhere. Apparently, “three things happen when (women) are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” Wow!
As several people have pointed out, Hunt is married to fellow scientist Mary Collins. I don’t know whether they met in the lab or not (I’m sure the media will find out soon), but their mutual love for science clearly had something to do with it. So surely that’s not necessarily a bad thing, unless there are problems Hunt hasn’t told us about yet. However, there are many scholars of both genders who just work alongside each other in a team without any sparks flying that hinder their work. It’s just like the real world. So I don’t quite get what the problem is.
As for women crying at work, there’s a simple solution: don’t treat us like s*** and it ain’t gonna happen. Nobody cries for no reason at all. If you find a woman (or indeed a man) crying at work, something is seriously wrong. Either she has been dumped with so much to do (women are the donkeys at work and the safe pair of hands) that she is close to breakdown, or she feels powerless because someone offended or bullied her. If she was feeling happy and appreciated she would not cry. It’s as easy as that. (more…)
The news that foreigners would not be allowed to vote in the planned EU referendum came as a bit of a shock earlier this week, if not as a major surprise. The rules are based on those for the General Elections. Besides, it seems the Tories are keen to exclude anyone from voting who might not agree with them on a possible Brexit, in particular EU migrants and younger people.
As an EU citizen I would have liked to see the UK government include us in the vote as we are most immediately affected. If Britain leaves the EU it is us who suffer most, as our movement, working rights, taxation arrangements, pensions, transfer of money and even family life might be affected. As EU citizens living in the UK are allowed to vote in EU and local elections here it would be only logical to let us have our say. But I was not holding my breath.
However, for me, this piece of news has opened another question on voting rights and citizenship and what these should be based on. To be sure, citizenship and voting rights are not the same. Even though they are not British citizens, Irish and Commonwealth citizens, including EU citizens from Malta and Cyprus, ‘over 18 who are resident in the UK’ along with Members of the House of Lords are also allowed to vote based on their special status or historic ties to Britain. On the other hand, British citizens who left the country 15 years or longer ago have lost their voting rights in the UK without automatically acquiring the franchise in their current country of residence thus leaving them completely disenfranchised.*
Defining the various historic ties and exceptions as reasons for giving (or declining) people the vote in an EU referendum is to an extent an arbitrary move. Reasons could clearly be found to extend the vote not just to all EU citizens, but to young people over the age of 16, or to people ordinarily resident in the UK. Likewise, we might wonder if voting rights should generally be based on residence or where we pay our taxes.
In some ways, this reminds me of the debates over the franchise during the English revolutionary period in the seventeenth century, when Cromwellians, republicans, Levellers and a variety of other people attempted to define what qualified an individual to vote. Each of these groups tried to find justifications for the franchise that matched their own interests.
Traditionally, only adult male property owners of freehold land worth 40 shillings or more were allowed to vote. Both Cromwellians and republicans wanted to maintain property qualifications, largely based on the ownership of land, while modifying the amount of property required. The Instrument of Government that established the Protectorate also provided for a redistribution of parliamentary seats to reflect population numbers, abolishing some of the anomalies allowing a few large landowners to select their favoured candidates. The Levellers argued for manhood suffrage disregarding wealth or income, with some even going as far as implying the possibility of votes for women.
Alas, at the moment, the tendency is towards narrowing, not extending the vote.
* This law is going to change over the next couple of years. However, the changes won’t be in place in time for the EU referendum.
Following the surprise result of the General Elections earlier this month historians in Britain have reopened the debate about Europe. Depending on where you stand, Britain is either part of Europe, or a strange place across the Channel you can travel to.
The Historians for Britain who have come out in favour of ‘fundamental changes (to be) made to the terms of our EU membership’ are clearly of the latter school, fearing a loss of British identity inside the European Union. In a controversial contribution to the pages of History Today magazine they have gathered historical arguments to show ‘how the United Kingdom has developed in a distinctive way by comparison with its continental neighbours’ to show why it can’t integrate any further in the EU.
Referring to Britain’s common law, its long parliamentary history and its ancient monarchy, Historians for Britain have made the case for a ‘degree of continuity … unparalleled in continental Europe.’
A manifesto for little Britain
Their manifesto for a little Britain based on the old chestnut of British exceptionalism has been countered by the Historians for History, who insist that history should not be used for political propaganda and ‘take issue with the statement’s highly reductive distortion of the history of the United Kingdom.’
They highlight that, ‘(i)n terms of ancient systems of democracy, Greece clearly has a much stronger claim than Britain’, while also drawing attention to the fact that the long-standing British monarchy was many times in foreign hands, starting with the Norman Conquest of 1066 followed by the Glorious Invasion from the Netherlands in 1688 and the take-over of the British monarchy by the Hanoverians hailing from the German lands. (more…)
Just over one week into my new job at the press agency I must say I absolutely love it. Working at the foreign languages desk I spend most of my day monitoring the news coming in from our correspondents all over the world via the various ‘queues’ on my computer screen and see if any translations are needed.
Most of the time the various desks, politics, panorama, sports etc, ask us to do translations for them – from English (mostly) and Spanish (rarely) into German – or we offer them stories we think might be of interest to them. We also keep an eye on the news generally, checking newspapers and websites, and sometimes we do our own stories or cover for a correspondent who is away on an assignment or on holiday.
Being paid to read the newspaper
Yes, ok, I’m being paid to read the newspaper. But that’s not the whole story. I also learn a lot. Most of the time the stories we translate need a fair amount of additional research. Some of it can be done on the Internet, some of it on various internal and external databases storing information on people, places and events. In the past week I’ve learnt among other things about the Nepalese constitution, the reasoning of the jury that convicted the Boston bomber, and a young woman who escaped Boko Haram.
It’s not just the stories themselves I enjoy. Doing the translations is fun too. The perfectionist in me always wants to find the right word, the correct idiom, the best way of putting it. Sometimes several colleagues at a time are deliberating about the best translation. With an international team of journalists and translators, including native speakers of English, Spanish and German, you learn a lot about the nuances of a language and the (subconscious) prejudices of its speakers.
You also learn a lot about things you never thought you would take an interest in – like golf. The story about Tiger Woods’ comeback was definitely the most difficult one I’ve had to translate so far, mainly because I don’t play golf myself and don’t know anything about putts, chips, birdies and the lot. Thanks to my colleague on the sports desk and various amateur golfers in the office I now know a little bit more.
A deadline is a deadline
What I really like about the job though is the speed and the almost instant reward when a story goes out. It’s even better when you find it on the web or see it printed in the paper a day later. You know that you have done something, and that you have provided a service many people will benefit from. No monograph, book chapter or academic article I’ve written will ever get the same exposure. (more…)
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…)