Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Go Home

This post is a digression away from discussions of Higher Education but I want to write something about an experience I had at the weekend.

Brexit has brought the vile anti-immigrant rhetoric to the forefront, and in the aftermath of the vote the news was filled with stories of verbal abuse and racist graffiti, largely directed to Eastern Europeans telling them to "go home".

And now I am reading about the burkini ban in Nice, France and the horrid story of a woman being forced to change in front of four male police officers and countless onlookers. The pictures themselves were enough to make me angry as a woman and ashamed as a European. But, for me, the worst part of the story were reports that the onlookers on the beach cheered and shouted "go home."

Now, the story I have to tell does not even come close to the humiliating and racist experience inflicted on that innocent woman and her daughter. But it is a microcosm of how it feels for someone to tell you to "go home".

After Brexit I was repeatedly informed that I have nothing to worry about. Yes I am a European living and working in the UK, but I am also Irish and that makes all the difference apparently! So all that take about "booting out" EU citizens didn't apply to me. Don't worry about it, I was told. Now, this story is less about EU immigration and all about perceptions of nationalities. The point is that micro-aggressions and micro-xenophobia can affect all immigrants to a country, EU or non-EU alike.

I do not have a strong Irish accent. For a number of reasons I have a slight North American accent, which my mother likes to call a "mid-Atlantic accent". Although, trust me, the Irish accent comes out with a glass or two of red wine. But despite the confusion of my accent, I am as Irish as Irish can be - born and raised just outside of Dublin for all of my life.

Saturday found me in a lovely pub/restaurant in Oxford, sat at a table next to the bar. A man standing at the bar repeatedly interrupted my conversation with a friend (an American) to which I politely nodded my head but tried not to engage. That was until the following conversation took place:

Him: "Why are you here?"
Me: "Excuse me?"
Him: "Why are you in Oxford?"
Me: "I work here"
Him: "Why?"
Me: "Because this is where I have my job".
Him: "But why?"
Me: "Why not?"
Him: "Don't you want to work back home?"
Me: "No, I like it here".
Him: "But you're American, right?"
Me: "No, I'm Irish".
Him: "Ahhhh......but why don't you go home to Ireland?"
Me: "Because I like it here and this is where I have my job".
Him: "But you will go home....?"
Me: "Does it matter if I stay or go?"

At this point, he could tell I was getting angry and upset at the implication that I should go home, that I shouldn't be able to live and work in the UK. He apologised, although I doubt he knew why, and ended with:

Him: "Sure weren't those two lads from Skibbereen great in the Olympics?"
Me: "Yes, yes they were".

God bless those two rowers from Skibbereen for rescuing that conversations.

Now, all of the above may not sound that bad. And it wasn't. But it was the first time in 6 years living in the UK that someone made me feel unwelcome here. I felt pretty rubbish as I left that pub, have little to no inclination to return there for a repeat encounter. And if I felt unwelcome and attacked for being an immigrant to this country in that one small encounter, let us all try to imagine how that woman on the beach and her family feels today.

I am an historian and I have, perhaps naively, liked to believe that the role of history is to learn from it lest we repeat the mistakes of the past. More and more I read the news to stories which hark back to the darkest times in our recent history, where we judge people on their language, their skin colour, their religion, their accents. I can only say that this tweet struck a chord with me, and I hope it does the same for you:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Being an Academic

Ok, so Twitter had a field day with this article bemoaning the culture of social media use by academics. See #seriousacademic for the Twitter feed and the main article can be found here.
Now, caveat here. I fell foul of the self-importance tone promoted by the title, but it has been noted by many that the title was likely a "click-bait" addition by a sub-editor. So, apologies for that.
But, I will not apologise for my use of social media. The anonymous author needs "to believe that employability is not directly correlated to how many likes you get on your Instagram posts". Well, it's not, and probably never will be. Yes, a social media presence can be a factor in employability, but it can never trump credentials such as research, teaching, conferencing, and publications.
My issue with the whole tone of the article is the insinuation that academics utilise social media as a self-aggrandising tool of narcissism. It rarely is the case. The majority of academic twitter users I know engage in public outreach, collaboration, and actively seek to foster communication across a wide range of interests and disciplines. But more worrying is the undertone that those who engage with social media are not "pure" academics of days gone by. Yes, those halcyon days where you are confined to your lab, office, or library, etc., only venturing out occasionally to present at a conference or to teach. Those halcyon days where the academic community was limited to the elite few who held university positions. The landscape is changing to be more inclusive, and social media is the driver. Twitter today has shown how many feel more engaged with their academic colleagues worldwide, and it is especially beneficial for those at small or remote universities, or who work outside the ivory tower.
 The fact of the matter is that there is no one type of academic.
  • Is someone who only researches and publishes, but hates teaching, an academic? YES
  • Is someone who researches and publishes, but works outside of academia an academic? YES
  • Is someone who uses social media to network and disseminate research an academic? YES
  • Is someone who researches and publishes yet loathes social media an academic? YES
  • Is someone who is labelled as an "independent scholar" an academic? YES
I could go on. The point is that no one description of an academic is better than the other, and we need to question our assumptions about who/what an academic is and broaden our understanding to be inclusive, not exclusive. (As you can probably tell, this is my pet peeve!)

An academic can come in many different guises.
One who uses social media is no less serious than one who doesn't.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Time and Identity

I wrote about the notion of sacrifice in a previous post, but I want to raise the issue again. Mostly, this is in reaction to the Stern Report on the next REF (Research  Excellence Framework). As many young scholars have noted, this changes to the REF 2020 will likely adversely affect Early Career Researchers. You can read more at the Times Higher Education site here.

At its simplest, it represents a catch-22. You have to publish lots in order to have a chance to get hired for an academic position. But then your publications are of no REF use for your new institutions because they were the product of your previous institution. So, do you hold of on publishing to be more REF-able but to the detriment of your CV? It has been suggested that a lot of publication lists on academic applications will read "forthcoming" or "in process".

At the time this news broke, I had recently returned from the Harlaxton Symposium on the medieval great household, filled to the brim with ideas for publications. I have already started to write an article, have approached two people to work on collaborative papers, and have been invited to contribute to the Proceedings of the Harlaxton Symposium. My monograph has been passed to the production team of my publisher. This is not to gloat or boast about how much I do, but rather to highlight the luxury I have in not having to deal with the REF implications described above. I am about to start a new job in professional services in Higher Education (more on that in a future post), and am comfortable in my alt-academia identity. It means that I choose to publish when I want to one, with no external pressures such as funding or the REF. I can build a body of work over the next 5 years, so that if I want to return to academic full-time, I will be well-placed to do so. I retain my academic identity through conferencing and publications. I consider myself an academic who happens to work in professional services.

In addition, I have been offered more teaching opportunities in order to keep that CV refreshed with evidence of continued academic activity. So long as I can make all this work around my 9-5 job, then I will usually say yes to most opportunities that arise.

But what this means is that I sacrifice time. One of the missions of this blog is to show that there are alternative paths after the PhD; paths which may require you to compromise on what you thought the PhD would lead to, but paths to interesting and varied careers with routes to maintaining that academic identity. However, these are paths which require you to give up your evenings, and sometimes your weekends.

I frequently battle at conferences with the assumption that I *must* have a post-doc straight out of the PhD. And, if I say that I don't have one, the assumption is that I *must* want one and whatever else I am doing is just a temporary stopgap to the academic research fellowship or lectureship.

The truth is, for me, is that I find working in professional services within a university incredibly rewarding. I am soon to move into the area of Student Welfare which I am immensely excited for. I realise that my post-PhD path may not suit everyone, but I hope it serves to prove that a non-academic job is not the death-knell for being an academic. While some may have assumed I had a post-doc, no one doubted my identity as an academic, even after hearing that I work in alternative academia.

So long as I keep publishing, conferencing, and even teaching, my identity as an academic cannot be taken away from me.