Who Cares? Call for Papers

Next March the Health, Medicine and Society and Women, Gender and Sexuality research clusters in the School of History at the University of Leeds will be jointly running a conference on histories of care.  There will be a conference website in due course, but as this is taking some time to set up properly, I am posting the Call for Papers here as well.

Who cares?: The Past and Present of Caring

Monday 27th – Tuesday 28th March, 2017

School of History

University of Leeds

A collaboration between the Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the Health, Medicine and Society research clusters.

Call for Papers

Deadline for Abstracts: 13th January 2017


At all stages of life, people give and receive care. Rapidly changing demographics are affecting the dynamics of care, and now more than ever, gender-based expectations of caregiving in history are being called into question. A growing emphasis on personal well-being denotes a generation that is complicating traditional notions of care.

The way care has been understood and delivered has developed across time.  Approaches to care have historically been and continue to be changed and challenged by spatial, temporal, and socio-political boundaries. This conference seeks to shed light on care within communities and across borders, exploring changes in its perception throughout history and how it intersects with different ages, cultures, and identities.

Our keynote speaker will be Professor Holly Furneaux, Cardiff University, author of Military Men of Feeling: Masculinity, Emotion and Tactility in the Crimean War (OUP, 2016).

The conference will also include a half-day workshop exploring issues associated with care in academic institutions. Through a discussion of parenthood, experiences of supporting family members, and mental health, this workshop will provide a space to explore how researchers at all stages of their academic careers care for themselves and for others. This session aims to highlight difficulties currently experienced within higher education, and identify workable ways the academe can help to ensure personal well-being, and further support staff and students in their varied roles as carers.

Submissions are now invited for 20-minute papers on subjects which may include but are not limited to:


–       Varieties of medical care

–       Gender and caregiving

–       Self-care and mental health

–       Care in the military

–       Care and the family

–       Care and the life cycle

–       End of life care

–       Care and the non-human

–       Care and marginalised communities

–       The economies of care

–       The politics of care

–       Critical care


We particularly welcome proposals from postgraduate and early career researchers.

Submission guidelines

Abstracts must be no longer than 250 words for 20-minute papers.

Please send abstracts to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk no later than 13th January 2017. Please ensure abstracts contain your name and institutional affiliation (if any).

Any general enquiries may be sent to hisccon@leeds.ac.uk

Working in Mud Time

I am on strike today.  As a member of the UCU, I am neither manning an open day drop-in session nor attending a classification meeting in an attempt to get across to university management that the gender pay gap in academic salaries (over £7500 at Leeds) and the ever-increasing casualisation of academic labour (51% on temporary contracts at Leeds) are things that really matter and need to be addressed to ensure sustainability of the sector.  To my third-year students, I apologise. You have worked hard and deserve to have your scholarly achievements properly ratified and acknowledged.  But nothing can take away from these achievements and, if we collectively learned anything from studying men and masculinities in Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is that gender hegemonies need to be challenged at all levels.  To prospective students, I am sorry if you feel if you had a wasted journey, but there will still be time for you to judge for yourselves if Leeds is the right place for you to study, knowing that it can only be a better place to do so if those who are teaching you are fairly rewarded for their labour and don’t suffer from the vagaries of job insecurity.

So instead of sitting in foyers and meeting rooms, I am sitting in the garden typing this.  As urged by my union rep, I am staying away from the university, not answering emails, not preparing for next week’s Somme 100 commemoration events, or the talk I am giving in mid-July, or reading applications for the two jobs that I am on the shortlisting panels for.  But on the table beside me is the chapter of my book which I am going to spend the afternoon editing in preparation for sending it to a publisher for consideration.

But surely that is doing academic work, you say.  This book is Research, the result of work done as an employee of the university (and only able to be done because I was a university employee).  If published in good time and of sufficient quality it will be submitted for the REF, by which the university as my employer will be judged.  Working on it today is, must be, strike breaking.

Which is one way of looking at it, but there is, inevitably another perspective.  Because this book as a product of my labour is mine and not my employers, however much my colleagues might have contributed, however important an office and official email were for getting the research done.  All books are, as Matt Houlbrook has noted, co-written or collaborations, but once published this book will be in my name.  It will be my calling card for the rest of my life.  If I leave the university, I will take that credit with me to wherever I go next.  The value of the book as a product accrues to me (and to my putative publisher) not to my employer.

It can be easy to forget this fact under the pressure of meeting deadlines and hitting targets.  It is even easier to forget, in the welter of work created by teaching and public engagement, that writing this book, shaping my original research into a form that communicates both the data and my analysis of it clearly , accurately and engagingly, is what I do best and why I do what I do.  I was able to come back to academia because of good fortune and the support of others, but I chose to come back because  I could not not write history and doing so in an academic setting made the most sense.  While working in publishing I spent large parts of my ‘leisure’ editing a collection of essays, writing articles and finishing my first book.  Writing history wasn’t my job, but it was my work, and it will remain so whatever paid employment I have in the future.

Such a sense of vocation is not uncommon in academia and it is, of course, dangerously exploitable by employers who use can use it to excuse poor rates of pay and exploitative contracts.  Yet just because it can be used this way does not mean it can be denied either.  To fail to acknowledge love of one’s work, to view its value solely as reflected by the pay levels and working conditions it attracts is to cede the value of the labour to the paymaster.

So this afternoon, after months of attempting to fit my writing around all my other work, both paid and unpaid, I will be reclaiming the value of my work not for my employer but for me, because this is who I am and this is what I do.  The same applies to the work of my colleagues; our work has value for the university but also for us and it deserves to be acknowledged as something more than the purely instrumental.  Fair pay and working conditions would be a decent place to start, although only a start.

Serendiptously, I reread Robert Frost’s poem ‘Two Tramps in Mud Time’ this morning (I was sidetracked in my hunt for ‘Mending Walls’ in an attempt to demonstrate the dangers of quoting out of context in political debate).  Frost’s eloquent anthem to the joys of manual labour (and Vermont weather) acknowledges the priority of claims to work for pay over labouring for love but nonetheless concludes:

But yield who will to their separation

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation

As my two eyes make one in sight.

Only where love and need are one,

And the work is play for mortal stakes,

Is the deed ever really done

For Heaven and the future’s sake.

In giving into the impulse of love on a day when the claims of need are being so strongly asserted, I am seeking, like Frost, not to dismiss the priority of that need but rather to unite with it in hope for a better future.

Doing history across space

This forms the third of a three-part series of posts reflecting on conferences I am have attended in recent months.  The previous posts in this series can be found here and here.

I am writing this on a train on my way to London where, tomorrow, I will attend a workshop before meeting with a potential collaborator.  I have done this journey in one day, getting up to catch the 6 am train and arriving home, bone weary at some time after the rest of my family is in bed.  The second half of the programme will remain the same this trip, but I am taking advantage of having the opportunity to stay with my cousin overnight, which should mean I get at least an hour’s more sleep (although possibly not more, given that she lives in Dulwich and I need to be in central London by 9).

Although this trip feels as if I have found the right balance between productivity and calm, it is nonetheless undertaken with a bit of regret.  In an ideal world, I would have been on this train two days ago, preparing to spend yesterday at a study day on First World War nursing held at the Wellcome Collection. The demands of family life meant, however, that I instead had to follow what looked like a fascinating series of talks, delivered by a number of colleagues whom I hold in very high regard via Twitter.

The dilemmas that this weekend has presented me with are something of a distillation of my experiences of travelling for work and conference attendance over the past few months.  In both February and March I dedicated a week to traveling to conferences, attending two or three within a seven-day period, a schedule which while exciting and often inspiring, was also exhausting and occasionally confusing.  While staying within Britain, I moved intellectually around contintal Europe and the British empire, as well as travelling from the seventeenth to the 21st centuries.

And even as I did all of this, absorbing and communicating information and ideas, I was still missing out. I did not go to Valencia, where what felt like the entirety of my Twitter feed spent a sun-drenched week at the European Social Science History Conference, nor, for the second year running, did I make is to the Social History Society Conference the wee before.  The latter took place at the same time as other conferences I had committed to; the former during a week when my young children desperately needed me around to remind them that they have a mother as well as a father to care for them and help structure their lives.

Such conflicts are, of course, an embarrassment of riches.  It is exciting to have so many possibilities for intellectual contact and cross-fertilisation available.  But there are drawbacks too.  Modern technologies, particularly Twitter and podcasting, mean that conference papers can be communicated and followed from a distance, but this is reliant on the good will, dedication and skill of presenters and live tweeters whose interests and priorities may or may not overlap with your own. In addition, following a Twitter hashtag or a podcast requires a certain amount of time and concentration on the part of both  the reader/listener and the communicator.  Trying to follow one conference while attending another, I have found, is incredibly difficult, while if I am live tweeting a panel, I have given up on taking my own notes, relying on my tweets as a form of note-taking.  Also tough is trying to follow a conference while getting a four-year-old’s lunch.  And ‘attending’ a conference at a distance does not allow for discussion, whether the back-and-forth of a question and answer session or the potential serendipities of coffee and lunch break discussions.  This last point was brought home to me when a live tweeter pointed out to his followers that he coudn’t actually put any of their questions to the panellists.

Then there is the question of cost.  I am in the fortunate position of being able to pay for conference attendance out of my current grant, but even that is not limitless, any more than the departmental budgets available to colleagues are.  For students and early careers researchers, the situation is even more parlous. Even when organisers try their hardest to keep registration costs reasonable (and not all do), travel and accommodation costs can make attendance at even one, let alone multiple events impossible.

Despite these problems, the sheer amount of intellectual activity happening around history, particularly the various types of history which I do (First World War, gender, social, cultural, British), is, as I say, immensely exciting and stimulating.  Which brings me to one of those conferences that I did manage to jam into my week of March madness, the Globalising and Localisng the Great War Graduate Conference on Stories, Spaces & Societies in Oxford. (I also attended the final day of the Resistance to War 1914-1924 conference in Leeds that weekend. A report on second day of that conference will be posted next week.) The scope for this conference, as the title indicates, was immense, and in terms of approach the two days covered military, social and cultural history in a truly interdisciplinary fashion.  Casualty statistics were deployed alongside diary entries and poetry, and discussion was enlightening and enlivening.  For my own part, I came away with a number of nascent ideas, two concrete references to follow up on, and the hope of recruiting another member to my research team at some point in the future.

One of the most interesting sessions was the roundtable discussion which concluded the first day during which current Oxford postgraduates reflected on their explicitly transnational approaches to researching the First World War, before discussion broadened out to a wider discussion of the transnational history of the war in the centenary period.  What struck me was the extent to which definitions of the transnational were defined, in the British context, by the British empire and dominions.  While the subjects of historical study were extra-European, the identity of historical actors from India, Africa, Canada, Australia, was inevitably intimately bound up with their understandings of themselves as imperial subjects, so that studies of these varying cultures and their participation in and memory of the war remain rooted in British history in complicated ways. This paradox was further reflected in the wider discussion, particularly Jane Potter’s point about the difficulties of editing a scholarly handbook of First World War poetry.  With all the good will in the world towards including as many national and supranational cultural perspectives as possibles, the limits of space, expertise and time, as well as the complexities of intellectual debate around definitions, inevitably mean that ambitions for comprehensiveness have to be reigned in, usually at the cost of the lesser known national literatures.

What the discussion highlighted for me is the extent to which we remain bounded by space in our work, whether analytically or physically.  Transnational history is shaped by historically constituted definitions of the nation, itself defined by borders both concrete and ephemeral. Location shapes our perspective, what archives we have access to, which scholars we encounter who influence our own scholarship, who we talk to and in what language.  Collaboration is, of course, a route to transcending boundaries, which are in turn enabled and enhanced by modern technologies.  But, as with conference attendance (that prime space for the development of collaborations), modern technologies cannot overcome every barrier or make space immaterial to the way in which we work.  As frustrating as the limits of space (and the inability to be in two places at once) may be, reflecting on them may, in a small way, help us in our understanding of the significance of space and its limits in the past.


tumblr_ncgkryMwuc1s1zlzoo1_500I miss reading.

That may sound like an odd thing for an academic to say.  After all, I read all the time.  Within the past few weeks I have read 10 2000-word essays, two articles for discussion in a reading group, a draft of a colleague’s article, a draft of an other colleague’s grant proposal, three pieces of work written by postgraduate students, bits and pieces of roughly two dozen books that I am using to write a book chapter, half of a review book plus an unnumbered number of articles, blog posts, twitter conversations, emails and other forms of writing that historians of the future may class as ‘ephemera’.  Next week I will read over a dozen research proposals, another piece of postgraduate writing, some more of the review book and yet more articles, blog posts, twitter conversations and emails.

My job is based on reading and reading occupies a huge portion of my time. So what do I mean when I say I miss reading?

What I really mean, of course, is that I miss reading uncritically.  Everything I read for work requires me at some level to think about it, evaluate the ideas it contains and make judgements based on those evaluations.  Some judgements are superficial or easily made. Deciding whether or not to attend the range of seminars that emails regularly invite me to falls into this category.  Others are more time and energy consuming.  Fully grasping the way a student has grappled with complex ideas of masculine hegemony or the sophisticated arguments of 250-page academic monograph requires attention and focus.  The former is a necessary aspect of daily life, the management of communication.  The latter can be hugely satisfying, reflecting achievements in communicating and comprehending complex ideas.  But both are forms of reading as work, reading in which the self is always present, bringing to bear critical faculties on the text.

What I miss, what I really miss is the sort of reading that entails the loss of self within the story, where the act of reading is enough, where judgement is not necessarily suspended but not the ultimate definition of the interaction between reader and text.  I miss reading for pleasure, a loss to the multiple demands on my time that I become ever more acutely aware of as my six-year-old son makes the transition from reading as learning to reading for self-satisfaction.  Watching him make that journey is wonderfully exciting, opening up new worlds of books that I can offer him to lose himself in.  But it is also a poignant reminder of how little time I spend doing such losing myself. There are books on my ‘to read’ shelf that have been there since he was born – and the pile still grows, a testament to the power of hope (and good intentions) over experience.  I will read these book someday, I know I will.

On the positive side, not only does my son’s growing discovery of the pleasures of reading for pleasure provide me with greater opportunities to read myself (although he still loves being read to, a joy I hope he never loses, as I have never done), but the Christmas holidays are nearly upon us, with their eternal promise of time to read.  The past few years have been dominated by grant deadlines which have eaten in to any time not already committed to festive preparations and family celebrations.  But this year I am determined to carve out some time to finish the novel I haven’t looked at since September, and maybe even one or two others besides. Because if I am to retain the ability to read critically, as I must do, I need allow myself the space read uncritically as well, to lose myself in the written word as a way of finding myself again.

Breaking the silence

It’s been a long time since I have posted, over three months in fact.  This is not down to a lack of material to write about (I have pondered at least a post a month which has never been written) and only slightly to do with lack of time (although I am pleased to say that the book is now four draft chapters long and well on the way to being completed in draft form).  Rather, I have got out of the habit of blogging and have struggled to get back into it.

Posting on here requires me to make the time to identify subjects, think them through and actually write posts down. Other things have to take a lower priority for this to happen and, as Matt Houlbrook recently pointed out, there are times when other things need to be prioritized.  Life can be more than history, and neither history nor historical blogging can alway console us for everything life throws us.

But there comes a point when even the priorities beyond history cease, at least temporarily, to be so compelling, when the deadlines retreat for a while, when the business of teaching and admin and childcare and housework have the potential to be treated as background noise rather than the narrative itself. But restarting old habits, however beneficial we may know them to be, can be difficult.  Blogging, like any other form of writing, at least for me, is a form of concentrated labour that needs time and space, time and space which need to be consciously carved out of already crowded days.  Forcing myself to do something that is difficult and time consuming but which has no deadline may be a very good self-mortifying discipline; that doesn’t mean I can or will do it.

So, in an attempt to get myself back into the habit of finding some time and space to write in this voice, a voice which I know is important to me both personally and professionally, I present you with the following query and half-formed thoughts which arose yesterday when I asked on Twitter whether any historians had included details of childcare responsiblities in their grant applications.  I received no more than a dozen responses, so this is a deeply unscientific survey, but the results interested me on a number of levels.  From the answers I did receive the following information emerged:

– The inclusion of childcare most often occurs as an explanation for past behaviours (time off for maternity leave) rather than as justification for proposed future behaviours (such as why a certain number of research trips of a certain length have been budgeted for).

– Some funders (take a bow, AHRC) have specific policies for taking childcare responsiblities into consideration. I did not know this. I am very glad I do now.

– There is a US/UK divide, with US applicants much more willing to view childcare as a legitimate concern of funders than UK applicants.

– Almost all responses were from women. Where men did responded it tended to be to be in relation of their female partner’s applications, rather than their own.

– All responses expressing anxiety about how the inclusion of childcare would be viewed by funders came from women, but so did the cheerleading for funders who explicitly stated that childcare consideration could and should be included in applications.

As I say, the tiny sample of responses makes any conclusions difficult to draw, even if I had any, but I remain interested in seeing where this discussion might take me, not least because of my own responses.  I have never included childcare in any application beyond the statement of maternity leave taken and the inclusion of my children’s birth certificates as evidence of my qualification for time credited for leave.  But now I am seriously questioning whether I should have done or do so in the future.

Thinking about it, I realise the extent to which I still separate my caring responsiblities from my professional identity, despite the immense impact they have on each other, an impact I freely acknowledge here.  How I ensure my children are properly cared for while fulfilling my obligations as a researcher and a teacher is an immensely complicated issue requiring great good will from many others (as I was reminded when my son fell ill two hours before my husband was due at work and 2.5 hours before I was due to teach as seminar).  Yet I still assume that sorting them out is my responsibillity rather than my funders.  That others, funders and academics, don’t see it as such is both cheering and challenging.

There is also a question of gender to be addressed, a question that seems obvious but which I find surprisingly hard to articulate.  Is childcare still a dominant concern of women? Are men more confident in asserting their right to have childcare responsibilities taken into account?  If so, why?  And what about other caring responsibilities?  Like so many of my colleagues, the necessity of caring for aging parents is becoming an increasing demand on my time and emotional energy, time and emotional energy that cannot then be invested in research.

I will need to think more about this, ask more questions, have more discussions, write more blog posts.  If I want to change the status quo, my own as much as anything, I need to break silence.


The things we do not talk about

Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front for the past couple of months. This has been for a few reasons.

a) I have been preparing for the end of my current project (which officially finished last week) by doing rather a lot of other writing – conference papers for the imminent summer conference season, a book proposal, detailed chapter outlines, even some things that some day may actually start to look like chapters of the book I want to complete this summer.
b) I have been preparing for the beginning of the next project, which should start in September, by finalising a number of administrative details including, most time-consumingly it turns out, organising an ethical review of the project and responding to several ethical queries raised by the body funding the work. Because the basis of the project involves documentation relating to the medical histories of ex-servicemen from the First World War, this has turned out to be more complicated than anticipated, as I will come back to in a minute.
c) Three members of my close family are suffering from illnesses which have involved a significant commitment of temporal and emotional resources from me, including multiple trips to the US. The severity of these conditions ranges from the life-threatening to the debilitating but all have been life-altering, both for the sufferers and for those of in their immediate family who, along with a variety of medical professionals, are seeking to care for them.

Now, you may have noticed that I am being rather vague about the specific details of the illnesses that have become such a central part of my life recently. This is deliberate. I have spoken in more detail about what is happening with various friends and colleagues who may be able to identify some or all of the family members I am referring to. Even then, outside my family and one or two very close friends whose support in maintaining my own equilibrium has been invaluable to me, I have not confided the precise details of diagnosis, treatment or prognosis.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, these medical details are not mine to share. They are, by all accepted ethical standards, the information of the patients. They have chosen to share this information with me (thankfully, as this has allowed me to offer what support I can to people I love very much and who are important to me), but have not necessarily chosen to share it more widely. It is not my right to share it in ways that they might not wish me to, however much the information shapes my own life. Indeed, on at least one occasion I have been asked specifically not to discuss the situation in detail with people outside the immediate family.

But, even if I had the explicit permission of the primary individual to share this information, there are other important considerations I need to take into account before discussing these illnesses. Because the sufferer and I are not the only ones involved. Coping with these conditions has, in all three cases, involved important interconnected networks which include, from my perspective, my husband, my parents, my siblings, my dad’s wife and her daughters, my children and my in-laws. All of us within these networks have our own emotional relationship with the illnesses and those suffering from them (as well as a variety of other additional stresses in our live – new jobs, house moves, professional concerns, etc.) Not all of us might be comfortable with a public discussion of the details of the medical matters that are shaping all our lives so profoundly.

Which brings me back to those ethical questions that I have been attempting to answer over the past six weeks. I was asked, among other things, to confirm that the information I will be collecting and analysing for the project is in the public domain and does not contravene any data protection laws. As it happens, the information is all publicly available and, because the subjects whose data is being scrutinized are dead, data protection laws do not apply. However, I was also asked to consider whether I was likely to reveal information (specifically medical details) that might be considered sensitive to those who are living. And here the issue of confidentiality arises. Because while the data involved may not be that relating to any living person, there is the possibility that the stories the data has to tell – about medical conditions and the care provided and received for these conditions – might be considered sensitive by surviving family members. Information about the nature of a wound or illness might be exposed which challenges the family stories told about a relative. Details of care might reflect new light on the behaviour of surviving family members. Embarrassing details about the effects of wartime injuries might emerge. As I haven’t yet done the research, I don’t know if such information will emerge; even if it does, I cannot predict whether any individual family or family member might be negatively affected by the information if they ever become aware of my research. Ethically I cannot ignore the possibility and must consider what contingencies I must put in place to ideally prevent and, in the worst case, remedy, any such effect.

The result has been a number of long and very fruitful conversations, in person, on the phone and via email, with a variety of archivists, data protection officers and researchers working in related ethical fields. The ultimate conclusion is that I will keep the sensitivity of the information I am dealing with in mind as I undertake and eventually publish my research. I will pseudonomise sources, although this will have to be balanced by the necessity of maintaining appropriate conventions of citation for my field. And I will continue discussing, with peer reviewers, with colleagues, with archive and university officials, the appropriate course to take in the specific contexts that may (or may not) arise.

There is, it turns out, no simple concrete answer to this sort of ethical question, and nor should there be. But I think it is helpful for me to acknowledge that, throughout this process my sensitivities and consequent decisions will be shaped, in part, by my awareness of my own willingness to share my family’s medical history in public. If I am unwilling to discuss certain details of my own family’s situation, including both the patients and carers, in public, how much can I ask of the families of the men I am researching? The answer is, at the moment, I don’t know, although I suspect it will change over time. However, I can say that my personal experience has re-emphasised for me the importance of the project I will be undertaking. Because to fully understand medical care-giving, whether historically or today, we must acknowledge and understand the role, and consequent sensitivities, of the family.

A few last thoughts on the ‘tunnel’; or a love letter to my colleagues

I quite badly want to start writing about writing my book, my next big project now that I have landed a job. (And yes, it is official, my letter of employment was signed and delivered to HR two days ago.)

But before I do, there are, I discover, a couple more things to say about my experiences over the past month and, in particular, about the experience of academic rejection.  Because while I do now have a permanent job, of all the certainties I have in life, none is more certain than that I will again experience academic rejection of the sort I experienced when my Wellcome application was turned down.  It may (and indeed probably will) take the form of a rejected article or book proposal.  It may (and again probably will) take the form of a rejected grant application.  Because while a permanent job in academia may seem like a holy grail from the far side of temporary contracts, the reality of the academic marketplace today means that in-and-of itself such a position does not bring complete security.  Tenure-track is not tenure and any academic job, even a tenured one, brings with it expectations that you will bring in research funding.  This expectation may not be as onerous as some recent terrible examples, most dreadfully the case of Stefan Grimm, but it is nonetheless there, stated plainly in the terms of my probation, that at the end of three years I will have secured significant funding and by the end of five years have a ‘sustained record’ of grant funding.  I know I will be supported, and on the evidence to date, the likelihood is that I will meet this probationary requirement, but the funding landscape in this age of austerity is pretty bleak, so the experience of rejection of carefully crafted, passionately believed-in applications is also likely.

Of course, I won’t be faced with the elemental fear that accompanied my last rejection in the sense that I will have, at least for five years, a job even if I don’t have research funding.  But how much consolation does that offer in the face of rejection of a project, an idea that you have poured your heart and soul into?  Academic projects can be deeply personal, especially ones which require immense effort and time to put together (as almost all do).  And the ways in which projects are examined and critiqued as part of the evaluation process, generally with rigorous knowledge and attention to detail, can make subsequent rejection feel even more overwhelming.  No surprise then that not only have I experienced rejection as a flattening process, but I have also seen colleagues with secure jobs shattered, at least temporarily, by the experience of being turned down by a funding council or a grant-making body.  It is simply part of academic life, learning to deal with that sort of rejection. Again and again and again.

How do we cope?  Because we do have to learn coping strategies if this cycle is not to destroy our mental health.  And not all of us do terribly well, as the extensive literature on mental health in academia illustrates.  Most of the rest of us find personal strategies – temporary retreat to a dark room, exercise, a bottle of gin, compartmentalizing, a sympathetic non-academic spouse or partner.  In the case of my Wellcome application, I was force to compartmentalize due to the timescales I faced, but running probably helped keep me sane.

However, in the end, it was not my own resources, or even the looming deadlines, that kept me from despair but the immediate support of my colleagues.  From a sympathetic coffee and slice of cake to an advice session with my mentor, from the quick ‘Are you alright?’ in the corridor as I struggled to keep my emotions in check to allowing me (when I was ready) to dissect at length what had gone wrong with the application, work friends and colleagues provided the time, space and emotional energy which kept me going.

If the negative side of academia is the intensity, pressure and scrutiny of the grant application process, then this collegiality is the flip side of the coin, one of the things that, where it exists, makes academia an extraordinary and desirable place to work.  In myriad ways it allowed me to feel that I and my ideas were valued above and beyond the financial value of the grant itself.  And yes, it made the eventual success in gaining a fellowship all the sweeter in two ways.  In the first place, knowing that I will be working with such supportive colleagues in such a supportive atmosphere is both a joy and a confirmation that this is the right job for me. And in the second place, I now have the opportunity to contribute to that collegiate atmosphere myself, to pay back the support I have received by supporting those around me. So I start my new role with my own small probationary requirement for myself – that I do all in my power to support those who were so supportive of me.

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…

On no longer being an early career researcher

I haven’t published anything on this blog for over a month. However, I wrote the following post in the first week of January but never got around to posting it due to the pressures of various deadlines. Since writing it, some of the points raised have been overtaken by events, but I am posting this now as it is relevant to what has happened to me over this past week, which I am still digesting. I will write more about that next week, when I have had a chance to reflect further.

Before Christmas I wrote a post looking back over the past year, attempting to take stock of the range of activities and opportunities that the centenary of the First World War presented to an early careers fellow researching the period. In the end, the post ended up being as much a moan about the exhausting, prolonged nature of applying for research funding as a celebration of concrete research achievements. Nonetheless, I was able to end my working year on a reasonably positive and hopeful note, even if one which brought with it rather a lot of work over the Christmas holidays.

So now, at the start of the new year (and having done only about a third of the work I set myself over the break), I pause again, this time to look forward to what the new year has to offer. And with this pause comes the realisation that, for me, 2015 will, above all else, bring the end to the ‘early’ phase of my career. As of July, it will be ten years since I was awarded my PhD. Even taking into account the generous 18-month allowance that many grant-making bodies now give as credit for each of my two periods of maternity leave, there are no early career grant schemes that I am aware of which accept applications from candidates with that amount of time elapsed since the award of a PhD. From this summer onward I am no longer an ECR, at least as an applicant.

So what will I become this year? Well, as it stands, possibly unemployed as of the end of April, although enough opportunities are still outstanding that I am hopeful this won’t be the case. But the possibility, presented just on the cusp of this loss of career-progression identity is rather terrifying. While I can now lay claim to a number of publications and a wealth of experience that I have accrued since I was last on the job market, the limits that no longer being able to define myself as an ECR place on my ability to apply for specific grant schemes make me a potentially less attractive candidate. With two small children, one happily settled in his school, and a mortgage, the fallback of temporary teaching contracts at whatever university will hire me looks even more unattractive than it did at the outset of my academic career (and that is before you factor in the growth in the use of zero-hours contracts in academia).

And yet, for all the fear that this change in status induces in me, I remain hopeful. Because if ceasing to be an ECR means anything it means that I am not starting afresh. Whatever my new identity will be as of July, it will be backed up by the experience I have accrued over the past ten years and the confidence that that experience brings. This is more than the items listed on my CV, although reading through it can give me courage, even after the twelfth revision in as many months. It comes from the good working relationships with colleagues I have developed, the esteem expressed in grant referee reports for my ideas, the invitations to speak, the requests to supervise. These are all things I have achieved as an ECR, things which will stand me in good stead as I embark on becoming whatever it is I am yet to become.

Imposter syndrome is rife in academia and yes, most of the time I remain incredulous that I should be taken seriously as an academic, a situation exacerbated by the rather convoluted route I took as an ECR which saw me taking a five-year break from academic employment. But right now, for this moment of looking forward, I do so with the belief that, wherever my career eventually ends up, I have made that most of the ‘early’ stage of my career, and the hope that, whatever the next steps may turn out to be, the next stage will be as fruitful and productive.

Bring it on!

Taking stock

It is the last day the university is open before Christmas.  The heating is off in my office, as is the light in the hallway.  In fact, I think I am the only person left working on this floor.  So what better time to take a moment to look back and take stock of this incredibly hectic year.


I had hoped to be doing this from the perspective of a clear desk, with all major projects completed, at least until the new year. Sadly, this is not to be.  I am preparing to place the fifth draft of an article which still needs a conclusion, a few more supporting quotations and a couple of hours of formatting footnotes before I can send it to the editor in my bag to take home with me.  Alongside that are a 350-page book and 48-page grant application, both of which I need to (re)familiarize myself with in preparation for two interviews early in the new year.  Oh, and then there is the grant application I need to redraft with the goal of resubmitting in early February. This will be the sixth time I have submitted this project for consideration by a funding body or grant-awarding committee.

So there is quite a lot of work still to do over the next two weeks, between the turkey and the Christmas cake and the two excited small children for whom Christmas is nothing but magic, a fact that makes it hard, sometimes, to remember just how much I have achieved over the past year.  But for all the lack of a nice tidy ending, there are definite signs of progress, not least the lovely folder that tops my document list bearing the working title of the book I will be writing next year.  The joy of the folder lies not just in its existence, but also in the fact that it contains two documents, a draft proposal and a draft introduction.  Baby steps perhaps, but concrete evidence nonetheless that this book is actually happening.  In the past 12 months it has gone from a vague promise to myself and my funding body to a clear outline and argument with a story to tell and a point to make.

And there are other concrete achievements.  The article I have been working on for the last few weeks may be tantalizingly unfinished, but the one I was working on this time last year is not only completed but has also been accepted for publication next year, marking the culmination of a project that had its inception nearly three years ago.  Slightly more abstractly, the piles of marking and course documentation, waiting to be filed following the completion of exams and second marking next month, bear witness to the time I have committed to teaching this year, time which has not only boosted both my CV and my confidence in possibly my least favourite aspect of the academic discipline, but also laid the groundwork for my forthcoming application to the Higher Education Academy for professional validation.

And then there are the abstract developments, such as the discovery that, despite two television appearances and a number of radio interviews, I am probably not cut out to be a full scale media don or public intellectual.  As much as I have enjoyed my engagement with broadcast media, particularly my interactions with the BBC as a New Generation Thinkers finalist and a World War One at Home adviser, I suspect I will always prefer blogging, whether on here or for collaborative blogs, as a form of public engagement.  Which brings me to my greatest regret of the year, the fact I have not been able to commit more time to this blog.  Too many subjects have slipped away from me as I have struggled to manage my priorities and keep some semblance of a work-life balance; too many comments have been made too late and in too much of a hurry.  I make no rash promises for doing better next year, but absence has made the heart grow fonder in this case, making me realize how important the process of blogging has become to working through my ideas.  With a little luck and slightly better management, I hope to be able to properly blog the progress of my book next year, as it goes from draft outline to completed manuscript.

Next year will, of course, be different.  As a colleague and fellow First World War historian has pointed out to me, 2014 has been a particularly hectic one for those of us who study the subject.  There have been more opportunities for undertaking innovative research and engaging with interested audiences than any of us could possibly take complete advantage of. Highlights for me have included the wealth of interesting academic conferences to choose from, including the wonderful War: An Emotional History which continues to inspire me and shape my approach to my work; the opportunity to help put together and teach a Massive Open Online Course, not something I could ever have anticipated or which I altogether enjoyed but which taught me a great deal; and the opportunity to engage with a range of interesting and inspiring artistic projects that have, once again, raised questions of the roles of historic and artistic interpretation in the process of commemoration. Low points include some frustratingly bad television, pointless and clichéd debates which failed to make full use of the real depth of historical knowledge about the war, both nationally and transnationally, that exists in Britain today, and the mind-numbing boredom that overwhelms me every time I contemplate the pointless unending discussions of the Christmas Truce which appear to have overwhelmed all else in the past weeks.  I think the high points more than balance out the low; at the very least they give me hope that there will be interesting discussions to be had in the future as we continue the centenary commemorations.

So there we have it, quite a lot of good, a bit of bad, a smattering of seriously ugly.  A year in which, however slowly, progress has been made and one in which much more has been promised but not yet achieved.  I enter the final week of the old year with a sense of incompletion but also of hope, a hope which I will desperately cling to as I face 2015 from a point of deep uncertainty and insecurity.  At present my current contract is due to come to an end in May.  I do have a very real chance of securing more funding after that (the interviews and grant applications I mentioned), although after over a year of pursuing them I am reaching exhaustion point.  I have spent so much of this year saying that I should know, one way or the other what would be happening to me by the end of the year.  It is not to be.  It will not, in my case, all be over by Christmas.  But for all that, there is hope of a positive resolution, something that would mean both immense personal achievement for me and security for my family.  So I will leave you with that sense of hope, to temper the anticipation of the hard work that will be needed if I am to have any chance of accomplishing the desired outcome.

Merry Christmas. And a hopeful, healthy, happy New Year to you all.