Uncertain and Afraid

I sit down to write this at a quarter past eight (GMT) on New Year’s Eve. As has become my habit, since I started this blog, I want to take the opportunity to pause, as so many others do at this time of year, and assess all that has passed since I last wrote such a post. Like many of those others, this time I will also be reflecting on the changes the past ten years have wrought. While I know pedants will point out that the new decade doesn’t start until 2021, as a mathematician’s wife I believe in the reality and power of zero, and the the changing of the third as well as the fourth digit of the year seems a good moment to plant a marker in time.

Over the past six years, I have written about hard years, and harder ones. I have written about poetry, both that which has accompanied me since childhood and that which I have discovered more recently. I have written of my family and of my work, of triumphs and of troubles. I have tried, throughout, to write with hope. I hope this evening that, despite the title of this post, I can continue that tradition.

So, how has the last decade been for me? Hard is probably the right word for it. In January 2010 I was the married mother of a young son with a PhD but no career. My first book had been published for just under a year. I lived in a rented house without a garden in a city that, after two and half years, I was starting to learn to call home. I had a loving family, many of them far away. I was teaching myself to bake bread and trying, for the first time since I was an undergraduate, to write fiction. I wasn’t sure where I was going or what I was doing.

In the intervening years I have had my second child (a daughter) and written my second book. I have found and forged an academic career, winning two significant grants and moving from an ‘early career academic’ to a mid-career one. I have developed new skills as a teacher and public speaker. With my husband, I have bought two houses and sold one, both with gardens. I no longer live (although I still work) in the same city, but feel that yes, I have come home. I have gained a niece and a nephew (as well as an honourary niece and a goddaughter); I have lost both my parents. I have learned to cope with long-term illness in those I love best. I no longer bake bread but have become very good at preserving, particularly marmalade and sloe gin. I am teaching myself to quilt and am trying, for the first time in a decade, to write fiction. I sleep less and run (and shout) more. Robert Frost and W.H. Auden are still my favourite poets.

So where does this leave me, on the cusp of the new decade, one which many people are hailing as holding the possibility of being the new ‘Roaring Twenties’? As a historian of that decade, I can’t but be ambivalent about such predictions. The Twenties, after all, were, for many, a decade marked as much by violence, displacement, disability, poverty, joblessness and illness as by bootleg gin, jazz and art deco styling. This was the decade of the British General Strike and the art of Otto Dix, of the Irish War of Independence (and associated Civil War) and the Scopes Monkey Trial. And there are enough echoes in both the politics and public discourse of the present to make me feel wary. Like Auden, writing about the following decade, I cannot help but feel ‘uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire / Of a low, dishonest decade.’ [1]

This sense of uncertainty and fear is reflected in my feelings about my personal life. This coming year will see the end of the funding for my current project. I need to write up that research in some form(s) and work out what the next project is, and while I have some ideas for both, ideas which excite and enthuse me, I don’t have the energy I did a decade ago. I look back on the woman that I was and wonder how I could have achieved so much in such a short space of time. I can’t do that again, nor anything like it.

As I say, I still love my subject. I want to read and to write and to teach and to talk about it. But I cannot do it in the way I have been. Grief, and family life, and private passions have become part of my being in a way they weren’t a decade ago. I am still learning how to live with the weight they bring, the space they occupy as a professional historian.

So looking forward, for me I am not sure that the Twenties will roar. Instead, they will be slower, perhaps more considered, a time of conserving energy and prioritizing passions, of learning how to give of myself without losing myself. There will be more reading, and more writing, but probably more fiction and less history. There will, I hope, be a lot of gardening and cooking (although not immediately, as we are on the verge of ripping out and replacing our kitchen, an act weighted with a symbolic mixture of hope and frustration). There will be friends and family, new and old, near and far.

I don’t know if those ambitions and expectations are as hopeful as those I have looked forward to in earlier years, but they are what I have to fortify myself against exhaustion, uncertainty and fear. However modest or ambitious, I hope your own hopes for the coming year and years are fortifying and fulfilling.

Wishing you a very happy new year, one and all.

[1] W. H. Auden, ‘September 1st, 1939’, lines 3-5.

What I do

This isn’t going to be a response to the recent Andrew Adonis discussions, at least not directly.  I’ve put in my direct tuppence ‘orth on Twitter already. It is, however, going to be a response to one of the more obscure byways that the discussion trickled into over the course of the day arising out of two comments. The first, from an academic, pointed out that academics really aren’t very good at communicating what it is we actually do. Listing all the jobs we have to do in a way that can give an impression of competitive business, yes; actually communicating to non-academics what our job entails, not so much. Which was reinforced by the second, from an anonymous Twitter user who, agreeing with Adonis’s argument about the laziness and unproductiveness of academics who don’t teach during the summer, stated that academics had never done a ‘real job’.

So the following is my attempt to explain what it is about my work that feels like a ‘real job’, one that bears comparison with other white collar professional and service jobs which form a significant chunk of the British economy.  It comes with all sorts of caveats, to whit:

  • This is a reflection of my own experiences. Other academics do other things in different proportions. It reflects the stage I am in the academic life cycle and my own rather original route to a permanent position in academia. It reflects that I am on a research contract and hold an external research grant.
  • I am not attempting to engage in competitive busyness with this list. It is a list of roles I do or have done. I don’t do them all at once, although there have definitely been occasions when I have attempted to multi-task too much, at the expense of my own health and happiness, and those around me.  I am still working my way towards a work-life balance that works for me.
  • There is an important case to be made for ensuring that academics have the necessary space for reflection, about research, teaching, public engagement and everything else that we are asked to do. This is not the case I am making, but it is an important one.

All that being said, this then is what my job as a senior lecturer with an external grant entails:

  1. I teach. Not in the same way as a school teacher (primary or secondary) teaches, but I spend time in a classroom communicating my subject to students and I have done almost every teaching semester of every year since 2015 (plus for two years in 2005 and 2006 when I was on temporary contracts). This involves devising modules, creating reading lists and ensuring that the works they contain are available to students (in conjunction with library professionals), organising assessments (essay questions, exams, oral presentations, research portfolios, posters), assessing, marking, providing feedback, writing and delivering lectures, preparing and delivering seminars, identifying or creating materials to use for in-class analysis and discussion.  For postgraduate students (PhD and MA) whose dissertations I supervise, I offer regular one-to-one or two-to-one (we co-supervise PhD students) supervisions, a minimum of ten supervisions per student per year.  I prepare for these by reading students’ work in advance, up to a complete thesis draft for PhD students approaching submission.
  2. I write grant bids. These are of various sizes, from £70 to cover the permission costs of some images from an internal research fund to over £1 million for a five-year externally funded grant. I do this with the support of our research office, who can advise on what needs to be or can be included in the budget, and of my colleagues, who give their time to read and comment on my drafts. But I am the one writing and rewriting, devising and justifying the budget and, in some cases, presenting the project to an interview panel.
  3. I manage budgets. Again, various sizes, from £500 pa to organise events for a research cluster to that £1 million+ over five years. Again, I have support from the university finance office, but I sign off on my team’s expenses; I am the one with the calculator, working out how much we can afford to spend on that unexpected piece of equipment, and justifying it in the subsequent report; and it will be my name in the frame when the project is audited.
  4. I manage people. It is my responsibility to make sure that members of my team not only contribute appropriately to the overall project but also achieve career development goals of various types (successfully completing their PhD; securing a publishing contract/post-project position/etc.) I need to make sure that they work together as a team and that they thrive as individuals.
  5. I am involved in recruitment. I write job specs, sit on short-listing committees and have even chaired interview panels. I help recruit undergraduates by contributing to open days in various ways.
  6. I am a publicist. I present on my project at conferences, design and present posters, populate project websites.  Yes, I use the university’s WordPress template, but it is still my responsibility to provide content and ensure it is kept updated.
  7. I organise events – seminars, conferences, public lectures.This involves fund raising, scheduling, sorting out the room booking, publicity, travel and accommodation. I usually do this in collaboration with others, but I have organised a few on my own.
  8. I research. This means reading books.  It also, in my case, means identifying relevant archives, traveling to them, exploring them and collecting and recording relevant information, if any. I don’t have a PA, so I arrange this myself within the spending limits dictated by the university. I am incredibly fortunate to be on a research grant that provides me with a budget to do this. I then sort through the information I have collected and reflect on it, working out what argument it enables me to develop.  I read other scholars whose work provides the context to which that argument will contribute something original.
  9. I write.  I construct sentences, paragraphs, chapters. I try to make them coherent, engaging, literate. I need them to convey an original and convincing argument that will contribute to knowledge and/or methodology in my field. Again, I am indebted to colleagues who read and comment on drafts, making my writing better. I write proposals to convince publishers that what I am writing/have written is worth publishing and can be sold. I revise and edit. I source images and get permission to use them and other copyrighted materials. I copy edit. I index.  Some of this can be contracted out, but at a price, one that, to date, I have not been a position to pay.

This, then, is the labour I undertake as an academic, or rather most of it.  I haven’t touched on the work I do that comes under academic service – sitting on committees, writing book reviews, acting as membership secretary to scholarly society – or public engagement – delivering public lectures, working with museum curators and artists, replying to email queries from people who have found my name on the internet and want to know more about what their great-uncle experienced as a member of the RAMC in First World War.  But this is the bulk of what I am paid to do for 37.5 hours a week, for 48 weeks a year. Those hours are not organised in a shift pattern; I am allowed to do them flexibly, so I can take an extended lunch break and then work on the evenings and weekends. It is a privilege that I try hard not to abuse and, like almost every academic I know, I end up working more hours in any given week (particularly weeks where assessments are due) and I rarely take my full entitlement of annual leave.  Outside of those hours I commute, do my best to raise my children, sustain my marriage, support my parents, nurture friendships, enjoy a few of hobbies (knitting, gardening, hill walking and running in my case).  I spend more time than I like on hold to utility companies sorting out bills and cursing my self-assessment tax return (yes, I know I need to employ an accountant).  It is not shift work or manual labour, but it feels like a real job to me, one that I value and through which I aim to provide value to others. It is what I do.

Women, Gender and Sexuality visit Women, Work and War.

A guest post from Laura Boyd, a second-year PhD student in the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies at the University of Leeds. Laura is researching the work of non-combatant male medical caregivers in Britain and France during the First World War, and is a postgraduate member of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster.

On 8 March 2017, the Women, Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster at the University of Leeds had the fantastic opportunity of a guided tour of the Women, Work and War exhibition at Armley Mills, followed by coffee and a chat. We were a mixed group of academic staff and postgraduates, from MA to Ph.D level in the Faculty of Arts. Guiding us was Lucy Moore, the Project Curator for First World War and member of the Legacies of War Project.

The visit began with the guided tour. The exhibition was wonderfully curated, and gave a real insight into the lives of the women working in and around Leeds during the Great War. These women came from all around Leeds and indeed much further, and took over the jobs in factories that were left by men who had gone off to war. Though it started in Armley, the factory expanded to the Barnbow site and employed large numbers of women.

Not only did it portray the ‘general’ or ‘bigger picture’ of the lives of these women who worked at Armley and Barnbow in the munitions factories, but was interspersed with personal stories. Lucy showed us around the different exhibits, including munitions and clothing, and shared other anecdotal tales that were not on display, taken from the writings of the ‘Canary Girls’ themselves. The exhibition featured personal accounts of the 1916 Barnbow explosion, which really brought home just how dangerous this behind-the-lines war work was. We even had the chance to have a sneak-peek at an original medal press that is currently awaiting restoration!

We then sat down for coffee and a chat with Lucy, and we began by asking about her own career progression into becoming a curator. Her answer? Refreshingly honest! And by that I mean that it wasn’t a straightforward, linear progression, as these things rarely are. A few of the postgraduates in attendance were interested in hearing about how to get into her line of work and Lucy gave us some great tips on how to get started.

This led to a discussion of the academic buzzwords ‘impact’, and ‘partnerships’ between academics and the community. Though these words tend to scare people like me, it was actually a really insightful and interesting discussion. Both Dr. Jessica Meyer and Lucy Moore are part of the Legacies of War Project here at Leeds, which they were delighted to talk about. Lucy was open about how the academic world has helped create interest around exhibitions such as Women, Work and War. Not only through organising trips such as ours, but by spreading the word among colleagues and at other academic events such as conferences and seminar series. She also said that she is happy to have connections to which (and whom) she can turn for information and help. Jessica was also keen on this point, telling us how the museum had also helped greatly in terms of ‘impact’, by helping the academic world bridge the gap between us and the public, leading to some fruitful and fascinating interactions. She also noted that often independent researchers involved in projects such as this come with knowledge and sources often unknown to academics!

So, to sum up, it was invaluable. Academic-community partnerships can help to get the public interested in what we do, and in turn can, through these partnerships make our research available to all. I would wholeheartedly suggest that if you have not yet been to the exhibition – GO! It will be well worth it, I promise.

How I got here

The weekly convulsion of my Twitter-feed in response to the Academics Anonymous column in The Guardian is becoming something of a ritual.  Last week’s, a former PhD candidate’s complaints about the British viva voice examination system for doctoral dissertations, happened to coincide for me with a dinner discussion of the path I took getting from my PhD to my current permanent position with external funding.  Based on that conversation, and the comments below the line of the Academics Anonymous article, I’ve decided it is time for me to come clean about how I got to where I am today.  It has taken me a long time to reach the point where I feel confident enought to discuss this in a post on here, but the time has come, so here goes.

Why is it so hard for me to talk completely openly about my academic journey?  Well, based on the opinions of some in the academic community (reflected in the below-the-line comments), for the following reasons I am a failure as an academic:

1) My MPhil and PhD were both self-funded.  The practical reasons for this was that my decision to apply to do both degrees came quite late in the annual application cycle.  My options for funding were further complicated by the fact that I was applying as an overseas (non-EU) candidate.  Yes, I could have taken time out, waited a year, reapplied for funding, but in the case of the PhD that would have involved considerable complications with regards to relocating and would probably have thrown me off my academic course.  As I was in the fortunate position to be able to self-fund, that is what I did, and ended up with a degree from a highly respected institution as a result.  However, in a landscape where many believe that too many weak PhDs are being produced, self-funding is often seen not as a practical choice (even if one that isn’t necessarily politically palatable to those who make it) but as a shorthand for a project too weak to compete for competitive funding.

2) To confirm those critics who would argue my research was too weak for a PhD, my thesis was referred following my viva.  There is quite a lot of confusion around the various terms relating to examination outcomes, so to clarify, the options for examiners at my university are a) unconditional approval (pass), b) conditional approval (requiring either minor OR major corrections), c) revision and resubmission of the thesis (referral), d) revision and resubmission OR the offer of a lesser degree (MLitt/MSc.), e) offer of a lesser degree without the option of revising and resubmitting, f) outright failure.  Roughly 10% of vivas at my institution result in option c, the option my examiners went for, which means that the candidate has longer to make the suggested revisions (6 months as opposed to 3).  While it can be emotionally tough, and certainly tougher than major corrections, it can provide the necessary time and space to absorb the ideas discussed in the viva, read any additional suggested literature, and produce work of the expected quality.  In my case, this time was invaluable in addressing the key theoretical weakenesses quite rightly identified by my examiners.  Using their suggestions I was able, in this time, to produce a thesis that did not require a second oral examination upon resubmission, although this in turn has left me with a strong sense of anti-climax around my degree, and a more than usually heightened sense of imposter syndrome.

3) I left academia for five years.  Nope, I couldn’t hack it.  After 2 years of temporary teaching jobs and about 300 failed applications, I decided to cut my losses and try something else.  I spent a year working in academic publishing before my personal circumstances changed, after which I did some freelance editing, finished my book and had a baby.  It was in this period that I realised that historical research and writing was what I loved, what I wanted to do with my life.  But I had left academia, hadn’t I?  I was a failed academic, with a weak degree that probably should never have been undertaken in the first place…

Except, that isn’t quite how things panned out.  When my son was 6 months old I was invited to lunch by Alison Fell and asked if I wanted to contribute to the Legacies of War project she was just starting to develop with colleagues at the University of Leeds.  My answer was yes, of course, but I had no professional links with the university.  With the support of Alison and the School of History, I was able to put together a successful Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship application, a job which in turn enabled me to put together my successful applications of the position of University Academic Fellowship in Legacies of War and for European Research Council funding.

So what did Alison, the University of Leeds and the Wellcome Trust see in me to make them take the risk of giving me the opportunity to get back into academia? I’m not entirely sure, but the following probably contributed.

1) I was REF-able.  My PhD may not have met the standard of being publishable on submission, but two chapters, almost entirely unrevised, formed the basis of half of my monograph, published four years after I was awarded my degree.  I  had also published two refereed journal articles (as well as several book chapters) based on the research undertaken for my doctorate, so publishers, journal editors and referees had, independently come to the conclusion that my research and writing were of sufficient standard to be published.  I had passed the criteria for examination by publication, if you like.

2) I had strong networks.  I never really fully left academia, even in the period I stopped actively pursuing a straightforwardly academic career.  I organised conferences, edited essay collections, reviewed books, acted as membership secretary for a scholarly society.  People knew may name, were willing to write references for me, launch and review my books, endorse my work.  In other words, I had the endorsement of ‘the academic judgement of the scholarly community as a whole’, as called for as an alternative form of examination by the anonymous academic.

3) I had good ideas which I was able to put forward as coherent, fundable projects (although I currently fear that I have overpromised on my current project, a by -now familiar phase of any new undertaking).  These ideas, both for Wellcome and for the ERC, arose directly from my PhD.  They are questions I was not able to answer within the scope of that project but which now, with greater experience and knowledge of the field, I can tackle.

So what is the point of this confession other than to finally make a clean breast of my academic failures, to show some of the frantic paddling that has gone on under the surface to travel this far?  Primarily, I think, to note that the PhD, while a necessary qualification for an academic career, is not the be-all and end-all of making a success of that career.  Being a successful academic requires skills that can be reflected in a PhD, but which can also be developed over the course of and after gaining the degree. The examination of our credentials does not end on the far side of the viva door but carries on throughout our careers, undertaken by funders, publishers, colleagues, students and, increasingly, the government and the public (but that is a discussion for another post).  The prospect is a daunting one, whatever stage of a career you are at, but it is also one that, at least for those of us who started our careers with a sense of failure, also offers immense opportunity.

Mileage may vary*

I hadn’t meant to write this post.  I wanted (still want) to write one about laughter and its uses in understanding historical power structures.  But yesterday I found myself drawn into the debate sparked by Mathew Lyons’ article on the experience of Early Careers Research in history and as my position on the subject needs far more than 140 characters to express fully, this seemed the most logical venue to articulate it.

Before I start, I need to make clear the position from which I am writing. As regular readers of this blog will know, I now hold a ‘tenure-track’ position at the University of Leeds.  This means that I have a five-year probationary period to go through but, all things being equal, at the end of that five years I will hold a permanent position. This is not an entirely secure post, and some of the probationary requirements have a whiff of requiring more luck than judgement to fulfill.  Nonetheless, it is considerably more secure than either the 3-year fixed-term contract I had immediately preceding this appointment, or the sort of very short-term fixed-term contract described in Lyons’ article.

A bit more background. Although I have only just stopped being officially an ECR (as I have explained here), I actually completed my PhD in 2005.  Between 2003 and 2006 I held a series of exactly this sort of short-term contract at four different universities. In many ways these jobs echo the description in the article – no training, poor pay, few if any resources to support career development activities. They all differed in one highly significant aspect.  In every institution, I was able to get and maintain these jobs, jobs which gave me important experience for my CV as well as a small income, due to the support of more senior academics who held permanent positions. They advocated for me, mentored me, advised me in ways that still inform and shape my academic practice.  They were, and are, my allies, not my enemies.

What they couldn’t do, despite huge amounts of support including sponsoring grant applications and writing letters of recommendation, is get me a full-time academic job. Despite hundreds of applications over a three-plus year period, the summer of 2006 saw me facing the possibility of no work at all the following term.  So I took the decision to explore other options and moved into publishing.  In other words, I left academia.  As it happens, publishing didn’t work out for me either, but it provided me with employment and a (very small) income while I undertook various academic-related projects – organising a conference, editing a collection of essays, writing a book chapter, completing my monograph.  Throughout this I was hugely privileged by the fact that my partner (now husband) was able to support me as the primary wage earner in our family, a privilege I am fully aware is not available to all or even most. But what does not necessarily require the advantage of family and financial support is the realisation that taking time out from academia, either temporarily or permanently, does not make you a failure.  This is hugely difficult to come to terms with, on a personal as much as a social level, but given the number of scholars across all disciplines who I know who have either taken time out or left the academy entirely, the time is well past where we need to challenge a limited definition of what a successful post-PhD career looks like.

If we are to accept that less established academics are highly unlikely to move seamlessly from PhD through postdoc to permanent position, how to we ensure that, for those like me who want to find a way back get the support they need to do so? More by accident than design throughout my ‘career break’ I was able to maintain a network of contacts in the field, if a somewhat limited one. It was one of these contacts who encouraged me to apply for funding and the generosity and support of a range of established academics and administrators who advised me as I wrote my grant application. Helping to support and maintain networks for post-PhDs, whatever direction their career takes them, is undoubtedly something established academics could do more of, although my experience has been that many do this already.

It is worth, at this point, pointing out that my way back into academia was not via an advertised teaching role, but rather through a research position that I managed to create for myself (with a great deal of support and good will from others within what has become my institution, as well as the luck of being in the right place at the right time). Working towards a research-focussed role made sense to me as I love research and communicating research through writing.  As with many if not most academics, research is the primary element of what I do and my motivation for doing it. This is not to say, however, that I do not see teaching as a very important facet of the academic role, in part as it is another way of communicating research.  But for me undergraduate teaching is not my first choice of communicating my passion for my subject. I do it because I know it is important. I believe I do it conscientiously; I hope I do it well. But I do not approach teaching with the passion I approach my research and writing. It does not inspire me in the same way and I am therefore less likely to invest the time and energy required to constantly reflect and innovate.  That being said, I do not ‘disdain’ teaching or the creative approaches that so many of my colleagues (both established and more junior) develop and practice.  I simply find it less rewarding (my lack of self-confidence possibly having something to do with lack of early training in the discipline) and am therefore inclined to focus what energy I have on the equally difficult challenges of public engagement, research innovation and writing for publication.  This is a personal preference, not a politically motivated calculation to improve my employment prospects and I am very aware of the need to ensure that teaching and research are equally valued within academia, something which I would argue involves challenging the divisiveness of the language used by so many politicians in their statements on university funding.

Which brings me back to Lyons’ article, where that accusation of established academics’ supposed ‘disdain’ for teaching has touched a very raw nerve.  It highlights the principle problem with the argument being put forward, that is the dichotomy being set between ECRs and permanent staff.  This dichotomy implies that both groups are monolithic, with all permanent staff failing to offer support to their more junior colleagues on whom they pile all the teaching, and that all young academics have identical aspirations and definitions of what makes academic success.  By generalising anecdotal evidence to make an argument about a huge range of experiences, it fails to acknowledge the diversity across institutions, disciplines and, above all, individuals.**  In doing so, it undermines the very solidarity that many commentators have been calling for as a way to challenge the very real problems of the exploitation of ECR labour which undoubtedly exist. It serves to silence those of us who have only recently achieved permanent positions, and therefore still wield very little power within our institutions. We worry about being accused of being ‘smug’ because we speak from a position of ‘success’, however much experience we may have of exploitation and ways in which we challenged it. Many established scholars worry even more about the security of their jobs, particularly if they are seen to speak out against university administrations. And it silences those of us who seek to challenge the oppositionality of research and teaching that the REF and the (rumoured) TEF imply.  Being research-focussed, and using that as a way to gain a job, does not make you an enemy of teaching staff, but nor does it give you the power, within a system which has drained so much direct power from academics, to challenge single-handedly the exploitation of fixed-term teaching staff.  We need to work together, making use of experience, providing support, advice and mentorship.  Yes, we need to be more honest about the competition of the job market, but we also need to be challenging a narrow vision of academic success, for ECRs and established academics alike.

*With thanks to Cath Feely and Victoria Stiles for the inspiration behind this post and its title.

** I am fully aware that I have used my personal experience here to call for a more nuanced view, something which may ultimately not be entirely helpful.  But as has been pointed out, much of the commentary has been based on individual experiences, such as those described here, and including narratives which present an alternative view on how to forge a fulfilling career from a PhD in the discussion may be helpful in providing said nuance.

Some thoughts on Tim Hunt and the problems of power

I hadn’t intended to post anything on the Tim Hunt affair.  This was not simply because I am not a scientist.  As Rachel Moss has demonstrated, some of us in the humanities have eloquent points to make about gender and professional academic relations well beyond the lab. It was principally because the response of so many female scientists on Twitter, posting under the #devestatinglysexy hash tag, made, through ironic appropriation and genuine self-deprecation, the elegant and amusing point of how damn silly and outdated the views Professor Hunt expressed were in a non-aggressive fashion.

And then I read this. And started to get interested. Because it implicitly highlighted something that has been missing from the discussion of exactly why this ‘joke’ was not simply unfunny, but deeply problematic for interpersonal relationships in some parts of academia. And we need to discuss it, ‘it’ being the relationships of power and authority which shape our working lives (both within and without academia) and which, all too often, are still shaped by gender and caricatures of gender.

What do I mean? Professor Collins, in her defense of her husband, is quoted as saying “You can see why it [the ‘joke’] could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.” But this completely ignores the fact that, due to his exceptional scientific abilities, Professor Hunt has earned himself a position of renown which means his views are encountered, and taken seriously, by many, many people who do not know him, are not married to him, were never his students.  His ability has, quite rightly, won him a position of power and authority within the world of scientific research. He held influential positions at UCL and with the European Research Council.  But with power and authority comes responsibility. And making ‘jokes’ which demean their subjects in public is to wield authority irresponsibly.  It is an abuse of power.

Yes, I know that Professor Hunt has claimed that his ‘joke’ was self-deprecating.  But this is only one-third true, at best.  Charitably, it might be argued that the claim that one result of working with women is that ‘you [the man] fall in love with them [the girls]’ (and yes, I do think it telling that Professor Hunt has refered to female scientists as ‘girls’ in both his original speech and his later interview for the Today Programme) is self-deprecating. But the other two claims, that ‘they fall in love with you’ and that women cry when criticised are not self-deprecating, they are deprecating only of others, others defined solely by their sex.  Forgive me Professor Collins, but if that isn’t sexist, I’m not quite sure how you are defining the term.

In other words, Professor Hunt used his position of power as a noted and notable scientist to make fun of a particular group who work in a subordinate position to him.  One not very nice word for this is bullying.  And, with my own professional hat on, thinking about the power structures of gender relations (intermasculine relationships in this case) in medical contexts as I am doing at present, it made me start to question how much power relations within scientific laboratories are structured by gender.  I don’t only mean the assumptions which are always cited in relation to why relatively few women go into STEM subjects – the gendering of science as a masculine pursuit from childhood, the lack of support for women in relation to maternity – but also those that relate to the specific community structures of the lab which are not places of equality or even meritocracy from what I can gather.  The lab leader, the principle investigator on the grant, the man or woman who recruits and employs a team to undertake research into a question he or she has defined and refined, is a person of immense power and patronage within this professional arena.  I have seen this at work when I was a PhD student and a contemporary found himself at odds with his supervisor, the scientist in whose lab he was working.  The end result was the PhD student left without taking his degree and went off to become a much happier and more successful doctor.  In this anecdotal case, the student was male and the supervisor female, but I started wondering about how gender shaped relationships within these personal spaces, as it shaped relationships in the even-more intimate space of the hospital ward. [1] I was interested enough to throw the question open to Twitter, and received back enough responses to form an interesting reading list for a moment of rather more leisure.  However, Dominic Berry did note that it is hard to find historical sources on this question from inside the lab itself.  These are still secretive spaces whose power structures remain opaque. Maybe, in light of Professor Hunt’s ‘joke’, it is time we started to explore these social spaces more critically from the perspective of gender.

Which brings me on to the final point I feel I need to make in relation to Professor Hunt, and this is specifically to do with his now former role as a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council, the governing body which defines the strategy and methodology of the Council’s funding aims.  Now, as it happens, from September I will begin a five year research project funded by an ERC Starting Grant.  As part of this grant I will be building my own research team, recruiting a postdoctoral researcher and two postgraduate students to work on aspects of an ambitious project whose questions I have defined and refined.  The money is in my name. I will be in a position of no little power and patronage. (Sound familiar?  Structures of power within academia and their potential for abuse are as relevant to the humanities as to the sciences in many ways, although the scope for escaping from toxic relationships with comparatively little damage may be slightly greater in the former.)

The leadership aspect is a key element of the remit of the Starting Grant, which aims to enable excellent science, where ambition and scope are deemed integral to excellence.  Frankly, I am terrified of the responsibility it brings, but I am excited as well.  I believe I can rise to the challenges that developing as an academic leader will pose in the coming years in no small part because I have had several superb teachers and mentors, both men and women, who have demonstrated by example how to build successful and supportive teams.  In fact, at risk of embarrassing her, I would suggest that Professor Alison Fell, leader of the Legacies of War project, provides one of the best examples of how to recruit, nurture and lead a successful team in the humanities that it has been my privilege to encounter. I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of that team.

I have no doubt that the many female scientists who came out in support of Professor Hunt, pointing to the ways he nurtured their individual careers, have much the same feeling about him as I have about those who have taught and mentored me. But their defense has the same flaw as that of his wife; Professor Hunt is a man of authority above and beyond the circle of his intimates and pupils.  He earned that authority and nothing should detract from the skill which earned it, but he has demonstrated an inability to use it wisely.  In doing so, he has potentially undermined the mission of the ERC, to promote excellence in science, and leadership in the field, wherever it may be identified.  In such circumstances, he had to resign, however painful that might be for him personally.

But for myself, this whole sorry situation has at least taught me an important lesson to take with me into my next challenge.  I will take up my new role with an exquisite awareness of the responsibilities it places on me to wield my authority (however limited) wisely and to assume, always, that I will be judged by those who do not know me, either as a historian or a woman.

[1] See also Ana Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War.

Out of the tunnel

So, those overtaking events which I wrote about when I posted last week…  We’ll get to that in a minute. Firstly, a quick word about those deadlines that got in the way of posting my blog for most of January.

The biggest of these was a mid-January interview at the Wellcome Trust for a University Award, a hugely prestigious award which would fund five years of research and ensure me a permanent job at the end of it.  The interview was friendly but very, very tough.  At least one question caught me on the hop and I answered it to the best of my ability although not, as it turns out, terribly well.  Because the following week I found out that I had not succeeded.

This news flattened me, almost entirely literally.  I lay on the table in my office and howled about it for a good three minutes.  Over a year of effort, involving two two-part applications (one a detailed revision) had gone into getting to the interview stage.  This was a project I believed in passionately.  The criticisms of my project were directed at what I felt were two of its fundamental elements.  I was left wondering whether or not I had any sort of future as a professional historian.

The prospect was terrifying. My current grant from Wellcome enabled me to return to academia after a five-year break.  Given that this was my second act already, I knew there would be no comeback if I was forced to leave academia now.  But reverting to the status of temporary lecturer at this point in my career seemed equally unthinkable. I am, as my by-line states, a wife and mother as well as a historian. Two young children make me much less flexible than when I finished my PhD, in terms of time as well as geography.  The sort of commuting to make ends meet discussed by Cath Feely simply isn’t an option for me any more.

The problem was that there was no time for me to assimilate any of these emotions of grief or fear.  Because more deadlines loomed – a resubmission to the European Research Council and an all-day interview for a prestigious academic fellowship at Leeds – both on the same day.  Both in their different ways were equally vital. Both required very different things from me in terms of communicating my research plans coherently and, above all, with passion and conviction.

So, while the previous 15 months of applications might have felt like something of a tunnel, they were nothing to those last three weeks of January.  My life was haunted by these two projects – the written application and the oral presentation and interview.  I ate and slept them. On the Sunday before the deadline my husband and I went for a three-hour hike; I rehearsed answers to interview questions the whole way up and revised the role of the postdoctoral research assistant on the ERC proposal the whole way down.  I rehearsed and revised my presentation daily, explaining slides to imaginary audiences as I pounded the pavement on my morning run.

And in the end…

Reader, I got the job.

As of 1st May I will be University Academic Fellow in Legacies of War.  It is (subject to probation) a permanent position as member of the School of History. It is, in all sorts of ways, my dream job and, in obtaining it, I have not only established that I have an academic career but finally, definitively made that transition from early to mid-career. I have come out of the tunnel and into a landscape at once deeply familiar and strangely new. I am delighted, terrified, exhilarated. And no, the reality, the permanence of it all, and what that means for both me and my family, still hasn’t quite sunk in yet.  I still keep getting small shocks of amazement and happiness, at a comment from a colleague, at the sight of my library card.

So there you have it. Now I too have my own particular story of the path I took as a young academic.  It has not been an easy path so far, although yes, unequivocally, it has been worth it to get here.  I am profoundly grateful, to more people than I can possibly say without sounding like a very bad Oscar’s speech, that it doesn’t end here. So I repeat what I have been saying, if occasionally through tears and gritted teeth, since December:

Onwards! And this time, upwards as well!

Now, about that book I need to write…