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.

Why am I still writing about Michael Gove?

I thought that, with yesterday’s post, I had managed to get everything I needed to say about Michael Gove’s intervention on the First World War out of my system.  Then I read this and I discovered that I had not.

I consider myself a ‘proper’ historian, a ‘careful’ researcher and, as it happens, one who spends an awful lot of time reading the accounts, both contemporary and retrospective of ‘the men who were there’.  In fact, I have written at some length about why there are historical problems of privileging ‘the men who were there’ as witnesses to the ‘truth’ of the past.  And yet, unlike Mr Mastin, and, as it happens, Sir Richard Evans and Gary Sheffield, I do believe there is a value to showing Blackadder Goes Forth in the classroom, not simply for what it tells us about ‘the different ways in which the past has been interpreted’, and certainly not because of what it has to tell about the lived reality of the war.  But it does have a great deal to tell us about the history of how the war has been remembered and commemorated as a major cultural (as well as military) event in British history and is thus an important historical document in its own right.

I am not going to rehearse my defense of why the cultural history of the war is at least as important as the military history, this centenary year of all years, here.  I have been making that argument in just about every piece of academic work I have published and I have a book review to write.  But I am going come out and say yes, we should be showing students of the history of the war television programmes like Blackadder and getting them to read books like Birdsong and Regeneration. They will teach students as much about how the war was remembered in the last quarter of the twentieth century as they will about the war itself, but that too is part of the history of the war.

What is more, I would add that we should also be getting students to read Sergeant Michael Cassidy by ‘Sapper’, The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West, Unpleasantness at the Bellonna Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, Kitty by Warwick Deeping.*  They should be watching Journey’s End and The Big Parade and La Grande Illusion.  Will these cultural works tell them the ‘truth’ about war experience? Only as much as Robert Graves’s Goodbye To All That tells the truth of war experience.  But they do tell us a great deal about how the war was remembered and understood and interpreted by British (and French) culture.  And that, too, is the proper history of the First World War.

*I have personally cited all these works of fiction as historical evidence in essays which have been published by reputable publishers in independently refereed journals. References available upon request.