Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Towards Public History

Apologies if this becomes a rambling post, but this weekend has given me cause for thought. In my last post, I wrote about what I thought would be my academic swansong - delivering the IMEMS - Blackfriars Public Lecture.

I thought that this would be the last talk I would give. And possibly the final academic thing I would do considering my last publication project was complete this February. I didn't have any more research planned and didn't know whether I wanted to continue to balance my professional and academic identities. I have talked frequently about how difficult and challenging it can be to work in academic environment for your day-job but be decidedly "not an academic" in the eyes of colleagues. Which is fair - my day-job is professional services - but I am still an academic and it is hard at times not be seen as such.

So I was ready to be done with academia, for all its toxicity, privilege, and exclusiveness. I was never going to be treated with the full respect of an academic with "real" academic affiliation so why was I still banging on the door or looking through the window? I didn't want a lectureship or to put myself through the academic rat race, so why was I still pushing myself?

For one, I didn't want to give up on my research, which I do really love. Plus my family invested so much for me to have the opportunity to do a PhD and potentially pursue an academic career. There is a sense of guilt that I haven't done that (that guilt being entirely self-imposed - my family are amazing!). In addition, I felt that I still have more to give in terms of furthering and advancing knowledge in my research area. I would feel guilty not continuing it because I do believe it is important and valuable research. 

But with that desire to continue to work, research and publish, comes crippling imposter syndrome. I recently published a translation of the medieval text at the core of my research, along with two wonderful collaborators. This should be a cause for celebration and yet I shy away from wanting others to read it, assign it as reading, order it for their libraries, etc. Not that I am afraid of criticism - constructive criticism is always welcome. Rather, I do feel (rightly or wrongly) that it is easier to judge those on the outside who are still publishing. We don't have the same support networks, opportunities to share and collaborate, to bounce ideas of, to have those critical friends. And so I always preface myself by saying "oh it's not a perfect translation, it's just a first attempt", as a way to pre-empt imaginary criticism.

Imposter syndrome is exacerbated the longer you are out. The longer you are gone the more you feel that you won't belong when you re-renter that environment.

Before the lecture, I was in a low mood because someone said to me that I was wasted in my current role. Now, I have to say that I love my job in professional services where I manage a pastoral support service for students. It is very rewarding and one where I can see a real career and make a real difference. Nevertheless, I was left feeling that I wasn't doing enough with my academic skills and experience.

I was nervous before giving the lecture. As a public lecture, would I pitch it at the right level? It was a while since I talked about my research  - what if I had forgotten about it all? As it was, I thoroughly enjoyed delivering the lecture and receiving positive feedback about the talk and my research. I was even feeling brave enough to have the lecture recorded, which if you know me is a huge step for me!  Words urging me to continue the research, to not give up* and offers of future support all helped me to realise that this wasn't my swansong.

While it is true that I have no current desire to apply for academic jobs, to attend academic conferences, or even to pursue further academic publications, that does not mean that I have given up on my research. Rather, I will refocus my audience. Giving a public lecture freed me to have more fun with my material, to engage an audience in another way, and to remind me that I can enjoy my material if I do it on my own terms. And that it my current attitude - I will pursue academia and scholarly research but in my own way and on my own terms.

Next up will be an ambitious pitch for a popular history book. Because one thing I realised is that I do want my research to reach an audience, but not the niche insular audience of academia. I'm now thinking much bigger and much more inclusive. So thank you IMEMS Blackfriars Public Lecture - you've reinvigorated me and refocused me. 

*Please note, I am in the right mindset to be receptive to calls for me not to give up. But it is important to be careful about how we say this to early career academics who would have many reasons to walk away from academic entirely and to cut off all ties. Keeping going involves financial and personal sacrifices that some - with absolute justification - simply cannot make. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Academic Swansong

Over the Easter weekend, I will be giving a public lecture in Newcastle where I am the guest lecturer for the IMEMS-Blackfriars Public Lecture. I was delighted to be invited to speak on my academic research but the realisation has dawned that this is probably the last academic talk I will give.

I think there are a number of factors here including wanted to focus on my career in academic administration, feeling like an academic outsider, and a genuine sense of "what's the point in trying anymore".

All these things are intertwined. The more I work on my career in university professional services, the more I lose my identity as an academic, a scholar, a researcher. This is compounded because I work daily with academics who can only see me as admin. Which is fair, that is my job. But when you have worked so hard for your doctorate, when your credentials are the same, when your publication output is commensurate, it is hard to not been seen for your academic ability too. But that is an occupational hazard when you leave academia but remain working in a university. Relations between academics and professional services, while normally good, leave moments where you are dismissed, demeaned, disrespected purely for the role you do. Perhaps some day I will write about the micro-aggressions towards admin that lead to a feeling of worthlessness in a two-tier hierarchy. Today is not that day.

I do also have a sense of "what's the point!" I just published my second monograph, a translation of a medieval text. The prohibitive cost of the book means hardly anyone will ever read it. My colleagues don't care, nor should they. So I have no community to help with a sense of pride, to disseminate my research, to foster discussions which would lead to new ideas for further research. I don't think we talk enough about the isolation and loneliness of pursuing academic research outside the academy.

This time of year everyone seems to be announcing their new post-doc, funding award, lectureship, tenure etc. It is so hard for those actively trying to remain in academia during this time. But for me, because I am not trying for an academic job, why do I still feel jealous? Academia is horrid at the moment. Those with permanent positions under increasing pressure. ECRs working precarious jobs to get a coveted few jobs each year. And independent scholars who may have been pushed out, being thought of as a lesser breed. In my heart, I don't want to be part of that. But I think that I am jealous for that academic community, that support and guidance, which is so hard to cultivate as an outsider.

I have an analogy for academia which may be a little silly but here is goes. 

Academia is like a house:
  • Some people own their house. Those with permanent positions or tenure fit into this category. They are the most secure and financially stable. Not everything is rosy, mortgages are crap, house prices miserable, but they are still in a better position than those who could never even afford to buy a house.
  • Some people rent their house. These are the precarious ECRs, who might be transient moving from place to place, subject to the whims of a landlord who might decide to boot them out on the streets one day. But if you save and sacrifice, then maybe (just maybe) you can get that house too! Despite the fact that there are few houses on the market and zero money.
  • Some people visit the house. These are the independent researchers. No longer in academia, or maybe they never were part of it. But occasionally they pop by to tell you about what they've been up to. The question is whether those in the house want to let the visitor in, offer them some refreshments, listen to what they have to say. Or are the visitors made to feel like they don't belong, are unwanted, and so beat a hasty retreat?

As a visitor, I would ask for more kindness towards us. All three categories have a torrid time and this is not a competition. Nevertheless, the voices of the first two categories shout the loudest and the experiences of the academic visitors, the outsider academic, is lost. 

Perhaps this isn't the end of my academic endeavors because we can never predict what life will bring. I want to do more public engagement, accessible history for the public and not the niche academic audience of 20 who will ever read my work. So for now, I will not be thinking about writing a "traditional" academic book or article because I just don't see the point because who would care? Academia is so focused on academic affiliation that my contribution to scholarship is automatically diminished in some people's minds because of latent and ignorant opinions about independent scholars. If those who owned their academic house truly understood the reasons why the rest of us either rent or visit, then their would be more kindness and empathy. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Academic Freedom and Social Media

This tweet today made me think:
We value academic freedom highly and believe that academics should be allowed to speak openly and freely about a range of topics, including the state of academia. But does (or should) that principle apply to all university staff, orjust academics?

To a degree, I think there is one rule for academics and another for the rest of university staff. During the UCU strike last year, I was tweeting generally about the strike and how "non-academic" staff were too often forgotten in the conversation. I was always careful not to speak specifically about my institution but about the situation faced by university staff generally. I also looked back on my feed and could not find anything negative about my institution nor anything which I felt would create a negative impression of me in my role nor the university I worked for. Nevertheless, I was made to feel that I should be a little more discreet about my tweeting. I wondered whether the same thing happened to my academic colleagues.

Many universities have social media policies, although many still do not (mine doesn't as far as I can find). Regardless, if you are open and public about where you work and are tweeting about academia (whether that is about teaching, research, administration, etc.) I believe that you do represent your institution. I have always tried to take care in what I tweet. Not to the point of self-censorship, but of reputational risk both to myself, my career and my employer.

I was once sworn at publicly on Twitter by an academic. I saw it happen to someone else this week (see previous post). I'm not wading in again to the circumstances of the swearing. This is a question of whether certain sections have more leeway and freedom in what they post. I know that if I publicly swore at an colleague online (even if at different institutions) a number of things might happen:

  1. It would negatively harm people's perception of me and could harm my future career as employers often look at social media;
  2. Colleagues from my institution might see it, including managers, and it could be reported and brought up especially if there is a social media policy in place);
  3. Even if I deleted the tweet, people would still have seen it and we know that people take screenshots.
For me, I weigh the risk when I am tweeting about things that frustrate me about Higher Education and universities. I don't want to censor myself as I value my perspective and think it is worth sharing. But I also value my reputation, collegiality, career and my institution. I can't say whether "non-academic" staff might be held to different standards than academic colleagues. It may be that I am just more sensitive to this. But I do have a sense that the notion of academic freedom does not apply to all who work in academia - academics and professionals alike.

As to the question in the tweet (Should lecturers and researchers be free to criticise their managers and to discuss their jobs online without fear  of reprisal?) - I don't know the answer. But whatever it is, I think it should apply to all university staff.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Academic Collegiality

Firstly, apologies for the lack of any blogposts recently. Lots of change happening which has prevented me from being a regular poster:

  • I ended my job just before Christmas and am on a break before I start the next role shortly (more on that soon);
  • I got a dog (seriously, that is the most interesting news in my opinion!)
I have to admit to not feeling hugely inspired to write over the past few months. I couldn't post about my job search until I had a new role secured and even then I still didn't want to say much on social media (for reasons I may explain later). In addition to that, I felt that I was rehashing the same points about being an academic on the outside. But I feel the need to return to this topic to discuss the theme of academic collegiality. It relates to this tweet:

The timing of this is apt: I am currently about to start the next and exciting phase of my academic administration career while at the same time I am finalising the proofs of my second academic book. Because of this, I feel even more sensitive than usual to conversations about the nature of academic and who we define as an "academic".

I have written about this here, but to summarise: I believe that there are many who view academics in an exclusive way - someone who works in a university in a teaching or research capacity. In that narrow view, I don't count. Yet, I hold a doctorate, have published 2 monographs and a number of academic articles/essays - all done while I held an administrative role in a university. I have become more and more attuned to discussions about the state of academia which lack any sensitivity or understanding of the precarity of those on the outside, those without academic affiliation. 

While we undoubtedly need to be open and honest about the state of academic from those on inside of the university walls, we also need to acknowledge and respect the concerns of those on the outside looking in. The state of the academic job market is such that there are so many more people on the outside wanting to get in than available roles.

I was pretty disappointed recently with an exchange on Twitter about the state of academia for ECRs when someone brought up the challenges of those trying to get into academia. That person was summarily told to "f**k off" by an academic. Beyond the obvious nastiness and unseemliness of such a retort, for someone like me it spoke to a wider issue. We on the outside just don't matter. We aren't seen.We are rarely heard. Even more rarely listened to. We are not respected. Our issues are just not as important as ECRs on the inside. 

And yet, often our academic CV is better than those with academic positions. Our publication records may be better. But we simply don't get respected as genuine academic colleagues, regardless of academic affiliation or not.I don't want this to sound like a competition - who is better than who. But it comes down to basic respect for each other and our respective circumstances. It comes down to academic collegiality.

As is ever the case with Twitter, it is far too easy to fire off an angry or frustrated tweet in the heat of the moment. I get that, I really do. We simply don't think of the one at the receiving end of our frustration. In that moment, the optics of how that behaviour reflects on the academic, their institution and academia itself forgotten. I am absolutely aware that this post reads as a very long subtweet. I want to stress that this is about the behaviour, not the person. This is behaviour I have encountered from others. I have also been sworn at on Twitter by an academic - I can speak from experience that it is so demoralising and demeaning. It makes you question your self-worth. And it makes you question academia itself when you see this behaviour from academics. As academics, we are taught how to engage in respectful debate. And if you don't like what someone is saying but can't remain at least polite - just walk away. It is just social media at the end of the day.

Academia is hard - for those on the inside and those on the outside. All I would call for is to treat each other with respect, recognise each other as academics and therefore practice more academic collegiality.

*Postscript: Following this post I was accused of believing that swearing was worse than being bullied (the individual alleges that they were bullied and that justified the swearing). I never weighed into the debate between the two individuals, never took sides. I do not condone bullying under any circumstances. My point was that I don't think that publicly swearing in frustration at a colleague as a gut reaction is ever acceptable. Even if you recognise that it was wrong and delete the tweet - the barb still hit and unfortunately (with screenshots these days) it is difficult to ever delete something. My point is that academic collegiality should mean that we engage respectfully or just walk away.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Publishing outside of academia

I wrote before about passing deadlines. Even if I had a full-time academic position, I think it is natural for some deadlines to be pushed for a variety of reasons. When you work outside of academia and you have to write in addition to your day job, it is even more difficult to meet deadlines.

I wrote before (here) about asking for an extension to my second monograph with Routledge. Initially that was to extend my a month to January, then it became May, and now it is August and it is finally submitted.

Now, some of the delays were out of my hands as this was a collaborative project, transnational, and not done face-to-face. Nevertheless, the delays were substantial but ultimately necessary. Had we rushed it, then it would have suffered. We would have suffered too, with the pressures and sacrifices we would have to make to do it in addition to our day jobs and studies.

I am so proud to have it done. To have sent the manuscript for my second publication while juggling everything else in my life. I will never pretend that it is easy. It is not. And it comes with massive impostor syndrome as I know there are scholars out there ready to critique the translation (although they don't care enough to actually translate it themselves - can't have it both ways!). I am so grateful to the hard work of my collaborators and the patience from my editors at Routledge.

I don't know if I will go for a third monograph or not. While I have bits and pieces of academic projects to pick up, I can't see much value in my continuing to put the effort in when I don't want to return to academia. At this point, I am thinking about turning my hand to more public history, to write books and articles that are more accessible and not just for the academic environment (and the libraries who are the only ones who can afford to buy these academic books!). If you have any tips on seguing into more accessible publications, please do let me know.

In the meantime, look out for The Book of the Civilised Man: An English Translation of Urbanus Magnus by Daniel of Beccles, coming in 2019.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Being an academic on the outside

So, I had not realised that a new academic volume was already out that contained a new essay from me. It was by chance that I googled it to see that it was already on Amazon that I realised people were buying it. People had already bought it at the recent International Medieval Congress! And all the while, I am waiting for my copy to arrive in the post!

The volume is called The Elite Household in England, 1100-1500. Proceedings of the 2016 Harlaxton Symposium, and my essay is entitled: 'Administering the Household, 1180-1250 - from Daniel of Beccles to Robert Grosseteste'. You can see more here

This is particularly pleasing for me as the publication process can take so long that it takes time to see a project to fruition. This is even more true for me at the moment as I am in the final throes of completing my manuscript for my second book! I have written before about the challenges of pursuing academic research outside of the academy. It takes dedication, sacrifice (both of your personal time and time with loved ones), and pretty robust motivational skills to keep at it when you are tired from your 9-5 job.

Just thinking about motivation for a moment, I do sometimes ask myself why am I doing this. Why, if I don't want an academic job, am I putting all this time and effort into academic publishing? Perhaps there is a subconscious side of me that wants to keep that door ajar just in case I change my mind. But I doubt it. Rather, I think that I just haven't finished with my PhD yet! By that I mean, there is so much more output from my PhD research than fit in the thesis. My PhD proposal was the product of an Master's essay where I hit on a topic which didn't fit 2,500. So I did a PhD on it and tried to fit it into 100,000 words. And it still didn't fit! So I guess I want to continue to work on and increase the scholarship and visibility of it. 

But I won't sugar-coat it and say that it is easy. It's not. My Harlaxton essay was the product of networking, relationship-building, and kind colleagues who could point me to resources. I was invited to Harlaxton to present and as I was no longer a student and had no academic position, I had little means to cover the costs of travelling and attending the conference. Luckily I was signposted to and then awarded a scholarship which was open to both PhDs and researchers who worked outside of academia - incredibly invaluable for people in my situation. From that conference, I may have a second collaborative article in the pipeline.

Impostor-syndrome is something that people discuss a lot in academia, and it is an issue that academics who work outside the traditional bounds of academia face. Raised eyebrows when you say you don't have a postdoc or lectureship. Even higher raised eyebrows when you say you work in administration. The label 'independent scholar' is wrongly tabooed. You are constantly made to feel like a second class of academic where opportunities are not open to you (such as the BBC New Generation Thinkers Scheme). So it is incredibly validating and affirming to read the blurb on Amazon for this Harlaxton volume. It describes all the contributors as 'leading scholars' and it has taken me some time to accept that label. It is important to remember that it is not your job title that confers your expertise but your research, however you choose to undertake it. We are all more than our job titles.

Yes, my day job may be in university administration but I am still a subject expert, a leading scholar in my field, and that can never be taken away from me. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Academic meanness

I cannot prove, but suspect that some of the comments about my major corrections, insinuations about the quality of my work, and my alt-ac career are by the same person, or 1-2 people. They have in the past told me that my thesis must have been poor and flawed due to major corrections, that I wasn't cut out for academia, and more recently, that I was a loser and failure. Here is a snippet:

They also like to trawl through all my posts to find they tiniest hint of a contradiction and publicly call me out on it.


If the goal is to make me feel bad, then it doesn't work because I am proud of my achievements. I am confident in my research, published via peer-review. I am assured in my decision not to pursue academia right now. So, if you are trying to pull me down, it's not working.

If the goal is to make yourself feel better by belittling others, then I would ask you to look inwards. What is it about me and my story that makes you feel the need to call me a loser, failure, with flawed research? 

I will always stand up for myself, so do not consider this post (or my Tweets) a validation that you have got under my skin. No. Rather, these false notions about major corrections and quality are harmful and seek to create hierarchies in the PhD result. There are none. A pass is a pass. My degree certification does not have a footnote to say that I got major corrections.

I passed. I made a success of a minor set-back. And I spoke up about it. If you keep commenting in such a mean-spirited way, I will keep calling you out on it.