A Hard Year

A recent email from WordPress reminds me that it is the time of year for reflective blog posts. Having singularly failed to post a festive message last week, I am going to try to post this one, although being on a hilltop near Scarborough with intermittent internet may yet thwart my ambitions.

So, 2015. It has been, without doubt, a hard year. Much of that hardness has been straightforwardly negative. The family illnesses which I wrote about in May have defined a great deal of my year and look set to do so well into next year and beyond. On the positive side, my mother’s cancer now appears to be in remission (touch wood!) but the rapidity and intensity of the disease and its treatment will be central to how I remember and reflect on this year. Coping with that, alongside the stresses of other illnesses and the normal strains of family life – the small boy who wakes no later than 10 past 6 every morning, the four-year-old with increasingly picky eating habits – has been, as I say, hard.

Other aspects, particularly the professional aspects, have been hard in other ways. I started this year full of uncertainty, with my professional future in the balance. By mid-February, that uncertainty had been resolved in the most positive way possible, a full-time job, a large grant, bright prospects and exciting work to do on the horizon, but not without a great deal of labour and anxiety, not least in those first six weeks of the year. And that work, as exciting as it is, is itself, as I am discovering, hard in the sense that it is challenging. The challenge is not solely intellectual, but also managerial, pushing me well out of my comfort zone and asking me to take roles that often make me uncomfortable. As much as I anticipated the challenge of this aspect of the grant when applying for it, the lived experience is nonetheless still as hard if not harder than imagined.

So I have been working hard, not only getting the new project off the ground but also attempting to complete the old one. Here the hard labour has, perhaps, proved most rewarding. The concentrated writing I did over the summer has resulted in three draft chapters and a large chunk of the introduction for the book, as well as a chapter for an edited collection and a rejected journal article, as well as the wholly joyful publication of a special issue which I both edited and contributed to. With the exception of the special issue, itself the result of several years of hard work, all these pieces hold within them the promise of more hard work – editing, revising, expanding, (re)submitting. And there is more such work to be done – four book reviews, a chapter for an edited collection, an article for a special issue, a conference paper. Each endeavour will involve time, energy, thought. Each in there own way will be hard and, if I work hard enough, will also be contributions of value to my field.

So for me the definitive moment of 2015 remains one that came in the middle, in that first hot weekend of July when, in her keynote at the Modern British Studies conference in Birmingham, Catherine Hall reminded us that the work of history, if done well, especially when done well, is by its very nature hard. It requires facing hard truths and a clarity of both thought and expression that necessitates focus and energy. The demands of the research that underpin this thought also requires labour which, in turn, must be integrated into the other demands that life places on us, to earn a living, to care for our families, to nourish ourselves body and soul. But as Hall demonstrated, in act as much as speech, it is work that is worth doing because it is hard work. Here, at the end of this year, I cannot but be glad for how hard it has been, personally and professionally because that hardness and heaviness have helped me to define my sense of purpose about what I am doing and will being doing with my life for the foreseeable future.

All that being said, there is undoubtedly part of me that wishes for an easier 2016, or at least a slightly more restful one. May yours be peaceful, joyful and kind to you and yours.

A very happy new year to you all!

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#am(not)reading

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.